Lithium Development in Bolivia Heats Up

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"[Bolivian] President Evo Morales has declared lithium to be the "hope of humanity."

Last month, the Bolivian government authorized a new state company to undertake "the full chain of lithium production," including "exploration, development, industrialization, and marketing." Bolivia's vast Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest untapped lithium reserve possessing almost half the world's known supply, equivalent to at least 5.4 million tons.

President Evo Morales has declared lithium to be the "hope of humanity," as well as the key to Bolivia's future economic prosperity, with the government remaining unfavorable to any foreign mining investment interests. According to Bolivia's most recent constitution, the country's natural resources belong to the Bolivian people and must be administered in their collective interest by the state.

Instead of exporting the raw lithium extracts, the government wants it to be refined, processed and industrialized, with battery plants and vehicle manufacturers, on Bolivian soil. The objective is to capture the value added by industrialization for Bolivians, in the form of jobs and economic and social benefits, instead of observing transnational corporations repatriate the majority of profits.

Mining Concerns

The Bolivian government is currently in the process of establishing a new mining law with a final draft anticipated before the end of May. Its Mining Ministry is consulting with interested parties, including foreign companies, in drafting the new mining law.

Ambitious Aspirations

The government's multiphase plan is a long-term enterprise. The initial $5.7 million pilot plant, to evaluate the quality of Uyuni's lithium deposits and extraction feasibility assessments, began construction in October 2008, although it is behind schedule. The plant will be upgraded to an industrial-sized factory complex capable of producing an estimated 30,000 tons of lithium carbonate/yr. by 2014, close to Chile's current production levels. The cost through this phase, including related infrastructure development, is estimated at $800 million.

The Bolivian lithium reserves are relatively unconcentrated and are subject to seasonal flooding, which slows the evaporation process. In comparison, Chile's salars are considered to contain the best-quality lithium deposits in the world, with high concentrations, in a dry climate at lower altitude. Reportedly, Bolivian scientists have developed a unique formula for producing high-quality lithium carbonate, which may help to reduce costs.

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