Mitsubishi y Sumitomo también quieren explotar el litio de Bolivia

Mitsubishi Corp y Sumitomo Corp. propusieron crear una empresa conjunta para explotar el mayor yacimiento de litio en el mundo, el de Uyuni.

El ministro de minería boliviano, Luis Alberto Echazú, dijo en una entrevista que las empresas, que presentaron propuestas separadas, ahora buscan trabajar en conjunto.

Las empresas se enfrentan a la competencia de un grupo francés formado por Bollore SA y Eramet SA.

Las baterías de fosfato de litio-hierro son más baratas que las de iones de litio. El litio, a diferencia del petróleo, se recicla una y otra vez.

Laboratorio del Salar de Uyuni elegirá sistema para explotar litio

El laboratorio químico instalado en el Salar de Uyuni realiza un promedio de 50 análisis por semana de ocho elementos extraídos del Salar de Uyuni, de acuerdo con el informe de la Dirección Nacional de Recursos Evaporíticos (DIREB) de la Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL).

El equipamiento del laboratorio químico del Salar de Uyuni tiene un avance de 60 por ciento y la construcción de la planta piloto adelantó 35 por ciento. El proyecto es concluir la instalación hasta el próximo año.

Los resultados de los análisis son "la base de información para definir el proceso químico más rentable y conveniente que será aplicado en la Planta Piloto", puntualiza el informe de DIREB.

El objetivo de la planta experimental es estudiar qué método se empleará en la industrialización de las salmueras del Salar de Uyuni, definición que servirá para elegir el mejor sistema para sacar carbonato de litio y hasta litio metálico.

Francesa Bolloré vuelve en junio a la carga por litio de Uyuni

El presidente de la Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol), Hugo Miranda, informó el lunes que una delegación de la empresa automovilística francesa Bolloré, interesada en explotar el litio del Salar de Uyuni, al sur de Bolivia, llegará al país en junio próximo para retomar las negociaciones.

"Va a llegar una comisión de Bolloré, como se había quedado con ellos, y a partir de junio vamos a hablar técnicamente con nuestros técnicos, en la reunión se va a revisar todo el proyecto", dijo.

Aunque no existen compromisos suscritos aún con la empresa gala, más que un acuerdo verbal de intenciones, la reunión servirá para el planteo de una propuesta formal para la explotación del mineral no pesado ni contaminante, altamente preciado por la industria automovilística planetaria.

Las negociaciones continuarán también, de forma paralela, con las también interesadas japonesas Mitsubishi y Sumitomo.

"Tenemos más de tres o cuatro propuestas, cada una tiene cosas interesantes. No solamente nos interesa el precio de inversión, sino también el sistema y método y la forma de explotación", agregó Miranda.

En una pasada reunión, la automotriz francesa Bolloré, propuso una inversión parcial de 1.200 millones de dólares para la explotación de yacimientos de litio en el sur de Bolivia, que incluye la construcción de plantas procesadoras de carbonato de litio y de potasio.

La propuesta técnica presentada por el consorcio transnacional será discutida en reuniones periódicas planteadas por sus representantes, conforme a los acuerdos preliminares con el Gobierno.

El proyecto plantea la realización de tareas de exploración para determinar la calidad y potencia del yacimientos de litio en el país, además la construcción una planta piloto y otra industrial.

El proyecto presentado por el consorcio Belloré es producto de una reunión entre el presidente boliviano Evo Morales y su homólogo francés, Nicolás Sarkozy, en febrero último, cuando acordaron en París un programa de inversiones para desarrollar las industrias bolivianas de hidrocarburos y litio.

Bolivia contiene la primera reserva probada mundial de litio, de al menos 5.000 millones de toneladas.


Mitsubishi, Sumitomo Propose Lithium Joint Venture in Bolivia

Mitsubishi Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. are proposing a joint venture to mine the world’s largest lithium deposit, Bolivia’s mining minister said.

The Japanese companies, which previously submitted separate proposals to the Bolivian government, are seeking to work together to mine the untapped resource, Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu said yesterday in an interview in La Paz. Lithium is used to make batteries.

The companies face competition from a French group made up of Bollore SA and Eramet SA, which last month presented a proposal to President Evo Morales. The government is requiring that offers include a commitment to manufacture batteries in Bolivia, a condition both groups accept, Echazu said.

“We’re evaluating both” proposals, he said. “They’re all prepared to follow the mining policies of Bolivia.”

Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat located in Potosi province, has 5.4 million of the world’s 11 million metric tons of lithium reserves, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. The Andean nation does not currently process or export lithium.

Echazu declined to provide details of the two proposals, saying they aren’t final.

Lacking Infrastructure

Bolivia lacks the infrastructure to produce, process and export lithium on its own, Echazu said. The country is South America’s second-poorest by per-capita income, according to the World Bank.

“We have to create the infrastructure,” he said. If companies “want everything to be ready when they get here, then they shouldn’t come.”

The Bolivian government is spending about $6 million to build an experimental lithium carbonate plant. Echazu said he expects the plant to be completed by year-end, and an industrial plant to produce lithium carbonate by the end of 2012.

The Bolivian government wants to sign a deal with private investors before the second plant is finished, Echazu said.

Jaime Cordoba, a spokesman at Mitsubishi’s branch in La Paz, declined to comment. Phones at Mitsubishi and Sumitomo’s Tokyo offices were not answered after normal business hours. 


Lithium’s geo-political shift

Lithium is set to play an even greater international role than it ever has in four decades. Considering Bolivia’s strained relationship with the U.S., coupled by the fact that it has more than 50% of the lithium global deposit, what are the geo-political implications?

The gist is that we need to get away from petroleum. The two obvious advantages are, a cleaner environment and less money that can end up in countries with dubious ties to groups threatening world balance. Lithium is mined in certain countries, however 50% of it is found in Bolivia. Considering how strained its relation is with the U.S., what will happen if millions in currency is poured into that country?

Lithium, What Is It, Anyway? According to Wikipedia, lithium is a lightest and soft alkali metal with the least density. For all its wonder in today’s lithium battery technology, lithium only represents about 4% of a lithium-ion battery. If lithium is everywhere in battery news today, it’s because it is lighter than the lead/acid combination we use in conventional cars. It holds the greatest energy/weight ration… so far.

A Short Term Boon. What could most likely happen to Bolivia, is that it will have a few good years until corruption rises to such a level it will find itself the same with other countries in that situation. Bolivia could end up having little to show for, except its lithium ore deposit. What happens when lithium technology is displaced with ultracapacitors? Looking at Saudi Arabia that has been prospering for decades with little thought on improving its own infrastructure, the country finds itself scrambling to build an infrastructure, especially one that doesn’t heavily rely on oil.

What Will Happen With All That Money? Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president wants the mining and refinement of the ore to be state run. His plan is to use that money for health, education and fight poverty in the country, according to TowardFreedom. Lofty goals as they are, Morales seems to have taken a cue from what happened in other countries that didn’t protect themselves well. The problem is that, by now you know, money exponentially corrupts. Looking at the political scene or any financial news around the world, will bring you abundant proof that huge amounts of money corrupt greatly. So, what will happen to impoverished Bolivia once it receives that cash inflow into its system? Without a well thought out plan, it could easily fall into chaos. What makes Bolivia better equipped to ride the tides of Capitalism other countries have failed? Has it learned from the mistakes other countries made?

Disruptive Technologies. Something we need to keep in mind when we research these lithium based technologies is that at any time, another more advanced one might come along and replace the previous one. I am thinking here particularly about the bright promise of the ultracapacitor. Smaller than a lithium battery, it is lighter, it could potentially one day replace that lithium altogether.

In conclusion, until the rest of the world builds a better relationship with Bolivia, aren’t we replacing one monopoly with another? My concern, as well as many others is what are the consequences to spending money to an impoverish country openly hostile to the U.S.? Aren’t we replacing Saudi Arabia with Bolivia?


The bullish outlook for lithium

What is going to be in short supply in the next few years? Well, some say lithium could be such a metal (although there are those who discount this).

The bullish theory is that lithium, which is so far used mainly in glass and in batteries for laptops and mobile phones, is going to be a supply deficit once the hybrid and electric car business really hits its straps.

Just look at the battle royal going on over who gets to develop the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, which reputedly contains half the world’s known lithium reserves. The government in La Paz will decide between France’s Bollore Group, Mitsubishi or South Korea’s LG Group.

There have been developments at two of the Australian-listed lithium plays. Orocobre has done a scoping study on its Argentinian project which shows the potential to produce 15,000 tonnes a year of lithium carbonate (along with 36,000 tonnes of potash). A bankable feasibility study (BFS) should be completed mid-2010.

The financing deal for that was released this morning. First, US-based Lithium Investors will take a $2.6 million placement, and shareholders will be offered a rights issue with a target of another $2.8 million with Patersons Securities to be the underwriter. This means Orocobre has covered the cost of its BFS — and further supports confidence in the lithium story.

And Galaxy Resources has appointed a Shanghai-based company to do the study on building a lithium carbonate plant in China to process the output of the company’s planned lithium mine near Ravensthorpe, Western Australia.

Galaxy announced the site of the plant would be at Zhangjiagang, a deep water port on the Yangtze River and the location of a free trade zone.

One last point: if you go back two years and re-read all the forecasts for demand for various metals (not to mention their prices), chances are that 90 per cent of them have been proved wrong. Keep that in mind when you read any projection into the future – even for lithium.


The Battle Over Bolivia’s Lithium and the Future of Energy 

In the brine under a crust of blindingly white salt in Uyuni, Bolivia, lies nearly 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Best known as a tourist attraction, the Salar is gaining fame as batteries made with this scarce element catch the attention of governments and auto-makers world wide. While on the campaign trail, President Obama promised that by 2015, there would be 1 million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on US roads, and, once in office, he allocated billions of economic stimulus package dollars toward battery technology and manufacturing.

In Bolivia, leftist president Evo Morales wants a state-run lithium refining and battery manufacturing industry to generate funds for health, education and poverty alleviation programs in South America’s most poverty stricken country.

As environmental and nationalist rhetoric promise big changes and bigger money for manufacturers and governments, questions still remain about the environmental effects lithium refining could have on Bolivia’s farming and tourist industry, and the viability of lithium batteries as an energy solution for the auto industry.

A Superlative Element

Lithium is the lightest known metal. At half the density of water, pure lithium has the disconcerting weight of a chunk of pine wood when held in the hand. You can cut it with a knife, but its white metallic luster tarnishes to an ashy charcoal almost immediately upon contact with oxygen. It floats in oil, burns with a bright crimson flame, and ignites in water. Modern society has used lithium in a variety of ways, ranging from mood stabilizing drugs, to the creation of the first human-made nuclear reaction. It is also used in glass, ceramics, light metal for aircrafts and, most importantly, batteries.

At an elemental level, lithium atom’s atomic radius is smaller, and in turn metallic lithium is more electro-negative, and boils at a lower temperature than any other metal. All these qualities make lithium ion batteries (LiIon) weigh less, take up less space, and last longer than alkaline batteries. Currently, LiIon batteries are making the more than 2 billion cell phones in the world light and small enough to slip in the pockets of their users. In addition, your computers, mp3 players and power tools are most likely powering up with a little bit of South American or Tibetan reserves. At the moment, nickel batteries are still less expensive than LiIon models, but if lithium supplies increase, then the cost could go down.

Currently the largest lithium reserves and producers are in Chile, Argentina and Tibet. Most refineries are dedicated solely to lithium, and discard other minerals. Since 2004, world production of lithium, especially in Chile, has skyrocketed. Argentina also has aggressive plans to expand existing plants and build new ones. Yearly production of lithium carbonate, the most easily obtained form, varies from 16 to 25 tons per year, and currently covers demand.

"Our grandparents lived from the salt. Now it’s our turn"

The silver and tin mining city of Potosí, Bolivia – in the 1600’s richer and larger than Paris – is now the capital of the poorest province in the poorest country in South America. 150 miles of dirt roads to the west, distant islands and volcanoes float over the blindingly white plain of the salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. The biggest in the world, the Salar is, according to scientists, the remains of a vast inland sea, or according to legend, the dried traces of breast milk and tears of a disconsolate goddess searching for her lost child. The light refracted by the crystallized salt makes it the last place on earth visible to the naked eye from space.

The Salar has been a resource for the people of the Land of the Lípez, as it is known, since time immemorial. Juan Colque works out of his house in the town of Colchani, selling salt sculptures of llamas, bowls, dice games and other shapes to the more than 60 thousand tourists who pass by on their way to see the salt flats every year. Other residents rake the salt into piles to dry, and then shovel it into trucks to be processed in the valleys. In this "salt town" on the banks of the Salar, most houses and buildings are made of bricks of the crystallized mineral. "I’ve worked as a tour guide, I know the Salar like my hand," says Colque, "I’ll work in lithium, too, if that starts. You have to do anything you can. People live day to day here." 

The quiet city of Uyuni is the biggest metropolis for hours. In the winter, high season for tourists, the glare of the sun bakes the plains until night fall, when frigid winds take over. In the summer, rains swell rivers that tear up the dirt roads and rickety train tracks connecting Uyuni with the rest of the country. In the mayor’s office, advisor Luis Ramirez Ríos says that he wants lithium profits to "go toward improving the quality of life in this area abandoned by the state and national government."

Currently, the largest industry in the area is tourism. The Uyuni tourist information office is in the base of a miniature Big Ben clock in the center of town. There, Omar Perez says that tourism is currently growing 14.95 % each year, and there are currently 74 tour operators. Perez acknowledges the possible benefits of lithium exploitation, but is wary of grandiose promises. "We, the people of Uyuni, are completely in agreement that it is economically very important. They say that all the jobs and materials will benefit people here," he says, and shrugs "but ask anyone in the street and they are going to say ‘nothing’s going on with Lithium.’"

Out on the edge of town, a sign on the gate of the FRUTCAS (Southern High Plains Regional Federation of Workers and Peasants) office reads "No Lithium Vacancies Left," but local men wait hopefully in the courtyard for work. Executive Secretary Francisco Quisbert has long seen lithium as a solution to lift his union members out of poverty, but only if it is run "100% by the state and the majority of the profits stay in the region, because if a transnational company comes, they’ll take all of the profits, and on top of taking everything, they don’t’ reinvest in the country." A decade ago, Quisbert helped organize successful protests against the government’s plans to sell the reserves to The American Lithium Corporation. In 2005, former coca leader Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia with a vast mandate to nationalize the extraction of natural resources and create a new constitution with the participation of social movements. One of Morales’ first acts as president was a highly theatrical occupation of a gas refinery, which is now partially nationalized.

In addition, creating a state run and owned lithium refinery is an act of "scientific decolonization" to Chemist and Director of Universities Pedro Crespo Avizuri, who has studied the Salar and its minerals since the 1980’s.

The Eyes of Capitalism

Former Mining Minister Mariobo Moreno says that the government must resist globalizing "instruments like transnational corporations and economic and international political pressure."

"The fact that the New York Times published that half of the lithium in the world is in Bolivia doesn’t raise any eyebrows in the country because it’s nothing new," writes Moreno, "but in the rest of the world, it puts all the eyes of capitalism on Bolivia."

And indeed they are. International press in the past year reacted to Morales’ assertions that lithium refining and battery production will be a state-run industry with ‘lithocracy’-phobic headlines. Simon Romero of the New York Times ("Bolivia: The Saudi Arabia of Lithium?" and "Nationalism Threatens Bolivian Lithium Supplies") frets that that sections of the new constitution "could give Indians control over the natural resources in their territory, strengthening their ability to win concessions from the authorities and private companies, or even block mining projects." However, a report prepared by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) points out that mineral-rich and infrastructure-poor Bolivia could certainly learn much about managing valuable resources from the experience of OPEC countries.

Piloting the Future of Bolivia

In a highly publicized ceremony, Morales laid a cornerstone for a lithium refinery pilot plant at the delta of the Rio Grande de Lípez in May, 2008. To Marcelo Castro, the director of construction of a pilot lithium refinery, President Morales is "not just an indigenous president, but a recuperation of our morals."

According to the Bolivian research organization CEDIB, the official plan for the process is to extract the brine from a southeastern area of the Salar and transport it through a duct to solid ground. 14,000 square meters of solar evaporation pools will allow the adequate concentration of the commercial salts of the brine. When running, the pilot plant will employ 55 workers and produce some 40 tons of lithium carbonate per month. The official date given for the opening of the plant is January of 2010.

The report mentions the productions of other minerals in the brine, including potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, boric acid and magnesium chloride. However, when I ask him about the production capacity of the plant, Castro is very insistent that there are many hurdles to overcome just in order to be able to begin studying the process of extraction itself, let alone begin exporting. But Castro sees long-term future benefits for Bolivia in the project.

Such a long-term perspective is needed, too, because neither the pilot plant, nor the larger industrial plant projected to follow, address the issue of processing the lithium carbonate into the metallic lithium needed for batteries. Both projects could still allow for a cheap exportation of lithium carbonate to international corporations who could process and sell lithium for a large profit to themselves, which many would like to do. Earlier this spring Morales declared that Bolivia will not sell crude lithium carbonate for international battery manufacturers to reap the benefit from, and that LiIon batteries and even cars should be manufactured in Bolivia. French company Bollore didn’t balk at the suggestion, but this news doesn’t necessarily mean action. Jindal of India has been working on plans to extract iron in Bolivia for several years, and the process is still bogged down in paperwork.

A Nature Crazier than Fiction

In addition, a closer look at the nature of Lithium in Uyuni reveals other challenges before Castro and hopeful battery manufacturers.

In fact, according to Meridian Institute Research Consultants, several factors are working against the Salar de Uyuni on its quest to become the world’s largest manufacturer. Uyuni’s lithium epicenter is not only lower in quality that the current large producer in the Atacama, but the lithium reserves are also less concentrated, which means that more of the Salar will have to be mined. Moreover, the presence of magnesium in the brine complicates the refining process. Another complicating factor is that the evaporation rate in Uyuni is only 40% of the Atacama, which means refining will take more time, all factors that will make lithium extraction in Uyuni a much more difficult and lengthy process.

This means that the governments’ "intention to produce 1,000 tons of Lithium per month by from 2013," one and a half times the current production of the Salar de Atacama, which is the world’s largest Lithium producer, are "highly unlikely" due to the high concentrations of magnesium and the lower evaporation rate.

A Closed Circuit?

For the last 500 years, mining has caused irreversible environmental damage to Bolivian land and communities. In Uyuni, when I ask Francisco Quisbert about his concerns about the environmental ramifications of lithium exploitation, he has an immediate point of reference: past fights against water exportation and the San Cristobal mine, now Sumitomo. He bemoans the fact that peasants and activists were able to stop a plan to export the subterranean water to Chile at the rate of 6,000 liters per second, but have been unable to address the nearby mines usage of subterranean water at the rate of 40,000 cubic meters of water per day, which has dried several watersheds formerly used by peasants. However, Quisbert is much more interested in potential gains from lithium production than the potential costs. 

Elizabeth Lopez of the Bolivian Environmental Defense League (FOBOMADE) is concerned by the lack of available water use and impact studies. She worries that exploitation of the Salar could cause lasting damages, but understands why local farmers are excited by the prospects. "When the people rejected LITHCOA and the water exportation, it was such a victory that they now feel that it is their right to exploit the Lithium reserves." The new government has also complicated the process. "It’s one thing when a foreign corporation comes, you can conduct a study, protest, complain to the government, but when the government itself is in charge, a government like this, which professes to have the greater good in mind, it’s a lot more complicated. Who do we complain to?"

Several concerns about the potential impacts of a plant have yet to be addressed by the government. While official sources call the process a "closed circuit," involving, says Marco Castro, taking the lithium out of the brine and "putting everything else back in," modern mining is rarely that simple, and Uyuni’s magnesium-rich lithium will require more refining than in other deposits. There is also the question of what effect disturbing or covering large areas of the Salar could have on local wildlife and climactic patterns. If, indeed, removing the lithium itself is a benign process, the government will need to pay close attention to processing plants. Plants at other reserves produce sulfur dioxide, which is produces potentially life-threatening effects after long periods of exposure.

The Emperors’ Battery-Powered Clothes

In the meantime, technological advances have promised to make LiIon batteries charge in seconds, and, on March 19, Obama took a photo-op at a Southern California electric-vehicle test facility to announce that $2 billion Department of Energy competitive grant program to motivate hybrid and electric car part and battery manufacturing in the US. "Show us that your idea or your company is best-suited to meet America’s challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it," he said.

However, like the ‘green energy’ promised by agrofuels, which actually result in a net energy loss, lithium ‘powered’ cars are another emperor’s new clothes of sustainable energy. Another key point that the buzz about lithium batteries doesn’t address is that LiIon batteries can only store energy; they cannot create it. So the question of where the great quantity of energy to power these electric cars and machines will come from remains. Unless the capture of wind, water and solar energy make concurrent technological leaps and bounds, future batteries made from "the Saudi Arabia of Lithium" will not only destroy a natural wonder of the world, but will still rely on the failing energy policies of today. 


Canadian scientists create powerful new lithium battery material

Lithium batteries could deliver more than three times their usual power if they contained a new composite material invented by scientists at the University of Waterloo, a study suggests.

The material created by chemistry professor Linda Nazar and her research team contains sulphur, a cheap substance that scientists have been trying to incorporate into rechargeable lithium batteries for a long time, said a news release Monday.

The challenge had been to find a way to keep the electrically active sulphur in intimate contact with a conductor such as carbon, Nazar said in a statement.

She and her research group described their solution to the problem in a report published Sunday in the advance online edition of Nature Materials.

The researchers took mesoporous carbon, a material riddled with extremely fine channels that are about 1/20,000th of the width of a human hair. When it was put in contact with melted sulphur, the hot liquid was drawn by capillary forces into the channels, where it solidified into nanofibres.

The new carbon-sulphur composite was used as the cathode, the positive electrode of a test battery, and showed what the researchers called an "impressive capacity."

"This composite material can supply up to nearly 80 per cent of the theoretical capacity of sulphur, which is three times the energy density of lithium [traditional] transition metal oxide cathodes," Nazar said in a statement.

In addition, the material remained stable when recharged multiple times.

Nazar said a patent had been filed for the material and her team is continuing to study the material in an effort to refine the battery’s performance. 


Sanyo To Increase Li-Ion Capacity Six-Fold

Sanyo Electric Co Ltd (6764.T) plans to build a lithium-ion battery plant in Japan at a cost of up to 30 billion yen ($315 million). The plant is expected to increase the company’s production capacity six-fold for the batteries to be used in hybrid vehicles.

The new factory will be located in Hyogo, western Japan and Sanyo plans to start operations by March 2011, Nikkei said.

Once the new plant is online, Sanyo will have the capacity to power more than 120,000 cars per year.