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Bolivia takes a key step in long road to tapping vast lithium riches

A lithium ore stockpile

Photo by Bloomberg

17th December 2023

By: Bloomberg

  

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Bolivia is cutting the ribbon on its first industrial-scale lithium plant, the dawn of what it hopes will be an export boom of the battery metal that could bring it back from the brink of economic crisis. It’s going to be a long road though.

In a ceremony Friday on the world’s largest salt flat, President Luis Arce will open the $100-million lithium carbonate facility, designed to churn out 15 000 metric tons a year to fuel electric vehicles in the global shift away from fossil fuels.

For the land-locked Andean nation, tapping into vast lithium deposits held in brine under the remote Uyuni salt flat offers a way to stave of a looming economic crisis as it burns through foreign currency reserves amid dwindling hydrocarbon exports.

But while Bolivia has much more resources of lithium than neighbouring Chile, they are not yet deemed economically viable. One reason is that Uyuni brine has high levels of magnesium, which make its lithium less pure and expensive to produce. Also, the nearest port is at least 500 km and a border crossing away. A state-led approach to natural resources is another deterrent to private capital, as is an 80%-plus plunge in global lithium prices this year.

Still, given Bolivia’s massive potential, some foreign companies have been prepared to do business there, with new direct extraction techniques seen as key for Bolivia to circumvent its purity issues and shorten the path to production.

This week, state-owned YLB and the Russian Uranium One Group signed an agreement to build a direct extraction plant in Potosi for $450-million, while a Chinese consortium led by Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. plans to spend $1.4-billion on plants. The government plans to offer more direct lithium extraction contracts.

A Chinese group was behind construction of the carbonate facility being inaugurated Friday. The government said the plant, which is coming on stream three years behind schedule, will produce as much as 3,000 tons this year, although it’s unclear if that will be battery grade material.
 

Edited by Bloomberg

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