LA PAZ – The Bolivian government said it will wait several years before partnering with a foreign company to produce lithium batteries and in the meantime will go ahead with the first stages of industrializing the metal.
Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu told a press conference that the first projects, up to an including the production of lithium carbonate, will be carried out entirely by the state, with foreign partners only needed beginning in 2013.
“After lithium carbonate, then come the partnerships to produce metallic lithium, lithium chloride, lithium hydroxide, batteries. That whole range of value-added (products) that are increasingly technologically intensive will be with partners,” Echazu said.
The Bolivian government currently is building a pilot plant at the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, believed to be the world’s largest lithium reserve, and will later construct an industrial-sized factory to produce lithium carbonate, the main component of rechargeable batteries that power laptop computers, cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.
That second plant will take two to three years to build and will require investment of between $200-250 million.
Echazu said President Evo Morales’ socialist government will take its time choosing a partner to help it exploit Uyuni, a 4,000-square-mile expanse of salt in southwestern Bolivia some 12,000 feet above sea level, adding that any firm wanting to team up with La Paz must accept the administration’s terms.
“They ask how much time we’re going to take. The time necessary so that the Bolivian government’s policies, which now are the aspirations of the people, are carried out ... we’re not going to hand over (the lithium) at the whim of the companies,” Echazu said.
He said there’s a lack of knowledge among analysts and opposition politicians, who think “the project is going to begin tomorrow” because the international firms interested in the lithium have estimated it will take six years for the exploration process and the building of pilot or industrial plants.
Morales’ administration is demanding that the European or Asian companies vying for access to the Uyuni deposits partner with the government to produce electric-car batteries – for which lithium, the lightest of all metals, is a crucial component – and even build an electric-car factory in the country.
Among the companies that have expressed interest are France’s Bollore, Japan’s Sumitomo and Mitsubishi and South Korea’s Kores and LG.
Those firms have agreed to join Bolivian professionals on a scientific advisory committee that is studying Bolivia’s lithium potential.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Bolivia is home to roughly half of the world’s 11 million metric tons of proven and probable lithium reserves. EFE