In a recent interview with the Spanish news agency EFE, Bolivian lithium expert, Juan Carlos Zuleta, warned that Bolivia will not be part of the new global energy mix with lithium because it has not been able to do things in time. He added that Bolivia is no longer the only leader in identified lithium resources in the world since beginning February this year it shares that place with Argentina. Lastly, he urged the Bolivian Government “to change the chip” consisting of Bolivia’s betting on development of magnesium as a main resource and lithium as secondary, something that, however, will involve additional work because it would require a lot of energy.
Lithium is “a key factor” in the new global energy mix but “Bolivia will not be part of it” despite having, along with Argentina, the world’s largest mineral lithium resources, warned the international consultant in this sector Juan Carlos Zuleta.
“At the moment we are seeing the advance of the accommodation of different market forces in the new global energy mix, where lithium is obviously a key factor,” Zuleta said in an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, but “Bolivia will not be part of this because it has not been able to do things in time.”
The government of Evo Morales pointed to the industrialization of lithium as a priority economic target in 2008, but so far has exported very few tons of lithium carbonate to China, while Argentina produced about 29,000 tons last year, Zuleta, of Bolivian nationality, explained.
According to the United States Geological Survey, Bolivia has nine million metric tons of metallic lithium in the Salar de Uyuni, but the Government speaks of 100 million, something that Zuleta described as “sensationalist data”.
On March 31, the Bolivian parliament approved the creation of Bolivian Lithium Deposits (YLB), a new state-owned company to boost the exploitation of the ore, which serves, among other things, to manufacture electric batteries, including those for automobiles.
According to the expert, this is “a further distractive measure to continue neglecting the underlying problems,” related to the alleged “inability” of the authorities in charge to move towards the industrial stage of production of lithium carbonate.
In August 2015 Bolivia contracted the German company K-UTEC AG Salt Technologies to design an industrial plant to produce that product, but after months of delay, according to Zuleta, there is “no clear and consistent reference to the state of situation regarding the elaboration of this design”.
The Government has announced this week that there are 26 international companies, mainly from Asia and Europe, interested in building the industrial product development plant.
However, the consultant maintains that Bolivia is late to the market and, if the most optimistic government forecasts are met to advance towards an annual production of 30,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, Bolivia’s share in that scenario would only reach to 10%.
“This leaves way behind the distorted idea of the Vice-president, who says that Bolivia will dominate the market and will fix lithium prices,” he said, referring to the projection expressed by the second state authority, Alvaro García Linera.
According to Zuleta, Bolivia has not advanced in the certification of all the reserves of the Salar de Uyuni and “is no longer the only leader in terms of identified resources in the world.” “Since February this year, it has begun to share that leadership with Argentina” which, Zuleta explained, has made greater efforts in prospecting and certification.
The Government’s forecasts announced in 2015 were to add investments that in 2018 reach 617 million dollars to develop the sector. In this regard, Zuleta prefers to speak of “spending” because he believes that strategic investment decisions have been wrong.
Bolivia has focused its efforts on building solar evaporation ponds, which occupy hectares of land and require “a lot of land movement” and “a lot of fuel”.
In addition, this method of evaporation is recommended for places where there is practically no rainfall, such as the Salar de Atacama (Chile), where the evaporation rate is more than twice that of Uyuni, he explained.
In the Bolivian case, methods of chemical separation or thermal evaporation could have been applied taking advantage of the country’s natural gas reserves, he argued.
One of the problems of Bolivian lithium is its low concentration in brine when compared to what happens in Chile and Argentina.
However, this relatively low concentration is accompanied, in contrast, by a high magnesium presence. “It is known that magnesium today has industrial properties that have not been able to take advantage of due to lack of knowledge and research,” he said, and further argued that Chinese and Korean companies are interested in Bolivian salares for that reason.
“The value of magnesium in the salt flats of Uyuni could be even higher than that of lithium,” the expert said, adding that “magnesium alloys could make a real revolution, especially in the automotive sector.”
Therefore, he recommended “to change the chip”, something that “would consist of Bolivia’s entry into the development of magnesium as a main resource and lithium as a secondary”, something that will involve additional work because it would require a lot of energy.
By Juan Carlos Zuleta
About the author — Bolivian. I hold a Masters´in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Minnesota and did Ph.D. studies in Economics at the New School for Social Research. My main interest now is in research on the economics of lithium, subject on which I have published a number of articles since 1992. Due to two main contributions to EV World.Com in 2008, I was invited to participate as a speaker at the inaugural Lithium Supply & Markets Conference held in January 2009 in Santiago, Chile.