Beyond pilot trials: Lithium extraction and industrialization in Bolivia

By Dr Maria Daniela Sanchez-Lopez

Lithium -often referred to as the ‘gold of the 21st century’- is a strategic resource with a variety of industrial uses but in particular, is a key component of batteries for electric vehicles and large energy storage systems.

More than 64% of the world’s accessible lithium is found in the ‘Lithium triangle’ in the South American salt flats of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. Chile has been the world’s largest producer of lithium carbonate since 1997, followed by Australia and Argentina. Reserve estimates suggest that Bolivia possesses the largest lithium deposit of the world containing 10.2 million metric tons of lithium (equivalent to 38% of global resources).[1]

Although Bolivia possesses the largest reserve in the Uyuni salt flat, the country is not a player yet in the international market and it has chosen a different strategy compared to the neighbouring countries.

In 2008, the “Plan for industrialization of evaporite resources in the Uyuni salt flat” was officially launched as a state-owned project with two main objectives: to obtain lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) to be used in the production of cathodes for batteries, and to produce and commercialise potassium chloride (KCl) also found in the brines and used as a fertilizer. The autonomous State company called Yacimientos del Litio Bolivianos (YLB) is in charge of the management and operations of the exploitation, industrialization, and commercialization of lithium and its derivatives in three different phases: pilot, industrial-scale extraction and industrialization of batteries. Only the industrialization phase is open for public-private partnerships. Together these phases represent one of the most ambitious State mining investments in Bolivian history with an estimated public spending of one billion US dollars[2].

Pilot and industralization

To date, the YLB has made substantial advancements in building infrastructure, including a pilot plant of lithium carbonate (1,500 tonnes/year); thirty hectares of evaporation pools and a semi-industrial plant of potassium chloride (12,000 tonnes/year), located in the south part of the Uyuni salt flat. However, both pilot plants are far from reaching its full productive capacity after almost 5 years of operations[3].
The industrial scale phase is already taking place and seeks to produce lithium carbonate (30,000 tonnes/year) and potassium chloride (350,000 tonnes/year). In December 2017, the potassium chloride plant was inaugurated and under operational testing during the first half of 2018.  In terms of the industrial scale plant of lithium, it started its construction in 2018 and in the best-case scenario and without further delays in the construction and testing plans, Bolivia will enter into the lithium market from 2020 and as a junior producer.

The industrialization phase is the most ambitious of all; YBL seeks to undertake the industrialization of lithium-ion batteries and cathode materials under the modality of a public-private partnership with the State having a majority stake in the profits. Between 2014 and 2017: two pilot plants for cathode and battery assembly were inaugurated in La Palca, near Potosí city. The design and building of the infrastructure in the salt flat, as well as the pilot industrial complex, were mostly commissioned to foreign companies (Chinese, French and German).

Recently, on 20 April of this year, YLB announced the German company ACI Systems GmbH will be the strategic partner for an industrial complex of lithium hydroxide, cathodes and lithium-ion batteries with an approximate investment of 1,300 million U.S. dollars. However, six months after this announcement, the details in relation to the public-private joint venture, the business and environmental plans are yet to be known.

Bolivia has an enormous potential with the extraction and production of lithium and its derivatives; however, the challenges to scaling up the production, consolidate the technology to compete in the international market and further develop a national industry require an urgent and critical debate about the lessons learned by the YLB in already a decade of planning and pilot trials.

[1] Grosjean, C., Miranda, P. H., Perrin, M., & Poggi, P. (2012). Assessment of world lithium resources and consequences of their geographic distribution on the expected development of the electric vehicle industry. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 16(3), 1735-1744.
Gruber, P. W., Medina, P. A., Keoleian, G. A., Kesler, S. E., Everson, M. P., & Wallington, T. J. (2011). Global lithium availability. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 15(5), 760-775.
[2] GNRE. (2013). Memoria La Paz: Gerencia Nacional de Recursos Evaporiticos. Montenegro, J. C., & Montenegro, Y. (2014). El Proyecto Estatal de Industrializacion del Litio y Potasio en Bolivia. Impactos Previstos. In R. Calla, J. C. Montenegro, Y. Montenegro & P. Poveda (Eds.), Un presente sin futuro: El proyecto de industrialización del litio en Bolivia. La Paz: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario / Plataforma Energetica.
Olivera, M. A. (2014). Factores de Riesgo Para el Proyecto Estatal de Aprovechamiento del Litio del Salar De Uyuni (Thunupa O de Los Lípez): Gobernanza, Mercado y Extractivismo Histórico.(Tesis de Masterado), Universidad Mayor de San Andres, La Paz
[3] YLB (2017). Memoria, La Paz: Yacimientos del Litio Boliviano.