Bolivia makes first shipment of lithium to China
August 17, 2016 by: Henry Sanderson in London and Andres Schipani in Bogotá
Bolivia has made progress in its aim to become the world’s biggest exporter of lithium with its first shipment of the world’s lightest metal to China.
The Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia where the lithium deposits lie
But the impoverished South American country still faces challenges if it is to set the global benchmark for the raw material used in smartphone and electric car batteries.
With a price tag of $70,000, the shipment of almost 10 tonnes of lithium carbonate has been seen by the market as more symbolic than profitable.
Bolivia’s salt flats hold the world’s largest potential resources of lithium and demand has surged in the past five years, with prices spiking over the past 12 months amid a supply shortage.
Almost all electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, use lithium-ion batteries because of their light weight and higher energy density.
However, Bolivia trails its neighbour Chile, as well as Australia, which have become the largest suppliers to battery makers in Asia. Argentina, another neighbour, is rapidly investing in its lithium industry.
The country’s estimated 9m tonnes of potential resources far exceed those of the US, China and Australia, according to the US Geological Survey. But Bolivia’s lithium deposits are more costly because they have three times the level of magnesium than Chile, which makes them more difficult to refine. The country’s salt flats also have a lower evaporation rate, according to analysts.
Robert Baylis, an analyst at the Roskill consultancy, said: “There’s potential there in terms of the resources but I would think it might be quite difficult to scale it up into anything large-scale without outside help. But it’s difficult for corporates in Bolivia because you can get your assets stripped off you.”
Last week Glencore, the commodity trader, said it would start arbitration against Bolivia over the nationalisation of its assets.
In 2008, when Evo Morales, the leftwing president, launched his plan to develop lithium, he made it clear he did not want simply to export the raw material. The country wanted “partners, not owners” to help it make batteries and cars.
Mr Morales’ government has held talks with French, Japanese and South Korean companies among others but little has happened. Analysts say Bolivia needs to clinch deals quickly to develop much-needed technology and gain market share.
With his eye on a multibillion-dollar industry, Mr Morales said in April that one day “Bolivia will set the price for lithium for the entire world”.
In the so-called lithium triangle of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the material is found in brine under the desert’s salt flats. The brine is pumped and allowed to evaporate in large ponds for several months and then refined into raw lithium carbonate which is mixed with other materials to constitute a battery cathode.
Lithium carbonate and potassium chloride are produced at a $19m pilot plant run by Comibol, the state-owned miner, on the edges of the Salar de Uyuni desert. The country aims to export 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate and 168,000 tonnes of potassium chloride by 2021.
Comibol said it expects to ship an additional 16 tonnes this year and intends to invest $790m in extracting evaporates in the next four years. It also hopes to export 5,000 tonnes of lithium cathodes from 2021.
Marcelo Castro, who this week stepped down as manager of Comibol’s Uyuni plant, said the shipment to China was a “reward for years of Bolivian efforts”. Alberto Echazú, the company’s head of evaporates, said Bolivia was “on the right path.”