Lack of expertise blamed for Bolivia’s lithium delays

Uyuni salt flat, in Bolivia, holds an estimated 40 per cent of the world's lithium reserves Copyright: Fernando Villarte

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[LA PAZ, BOLIVIA] Delays in Bolivia’s efforts to capitalise on its rich lithium supplies are being partly blamed on a lack of relevant scientific expertise in the country.

Strong global demand for lithium carbonate in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones and laptops has tripled its price in less than a decade to around US$6,000 per tonne.

But a pilot plant due to start producing lithium carbonate for research purposes in 2009 has been postponed until May 2012. And the first plant to industrialise lithium production — originally expected to start producing lithium batteries in 2014 — has been delayed until late 2015.

Luis Alberto Echazú, manager of the division that deals with lithium extraction at Bolivia’s state-owned mining corporation, Comibol, told local media last month (17 January) that there were delays in signing contracts, as well as technical, social and environmental challenges.

But some experts also blame a lack of scientific expertise, and the slow response of universities in addressing the country’s scientific needs.

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile have around 85 per cent of the world’s known reserves of lithium. Bolivia has half of this, mainly at the Uyuni salt flat, but is failing to capitalise on the resource, even though the Bolivian government issued a decree in 2008 to promote the industrial exploitation of lithium.

José Bustillos, director of research and development at the National Bureau of Evaporative Resources (GNRE), told SciDev.Net that important progress has been made since then.

"GNRE was created to develop technology to obtain higher value-added elements from the Uyuni salt flat, a state-of-the-art laboratory was implemented to analyse brine and crystals, a scientific committee was formed, and a pilot plant was built for the production of lithium carbonate," he said.

But critics point out that production has still not started, even at the pilot plant, despite the 2008 decree committing the country to producing 40 tonnes of lithium carbonate per month within 18 months.

Juan Carlos Zuleta, an independent analyst, told SciDev.Net that Bolivia lacks the scientific and technological conditions needed to industrialise lithium production.

Uyuni’s climatic, geological and chemical characteristics have led to high production costs, he said. Lithium concentrations in Uyuni’s brines are one-sixth of those in Chile’s Atacama Desert, for example, and the Uyuni salt flat is subject to seasonal flooding.

These problems require innovative extraction processes, but Bolivia lacks experience in the exploration, extraction and processing of such minerals, according to Zuleta, who blamed the universities for failing to meet the country’s scientific needs.

Pedro Crespo, deputy minister of science and technology, admitted that the dismantling of the Mining Metallurgical Institute in 1985 had led to a shortage of mining experts. "No one has been trained," he told SciDev.Net. He urged universities to help rebuild capacity in the mining sector.

Enrique Velazco, executive director of the INASET Foundation (Institute of Social, Economic and Technological Assistance for Industry), told SciDev.Net that Bolivia will need better technological and geopolitical strategies if it is to become an important player on the global lithium market.

"It seems that we have important deficiencies not only in qualified human resources but also in access to technology," he said.