El ejecutivo del Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia explicó que el Estado busca producir el compuesto, de forma soberana, con su propia tecnología y diseño e incluso sus propios recursos.
“Entonces, el Estado en realidad lo que quiere es tener la planta industrial de carbonato de litio con sus propios recursos. No importa que tengamos que buscar un apoyo financiero, en un banco o en alguna otra entidad”.
En febrero de este año, el presidente Morales buscó inversiones y apoyo para explotar el mineral en Francia y Rusia.
Hasta el momento grandes empresas japonesas (Sumitomo y Mitsubishi ), de Francia (Bolloré) y de Corea del Sur (LG) manifestaron su interés por la explotación del litio boliviano, pero como materia prima. El Ejecutivo exige y sólo está interesado en una propuesta de industrialización del metal.
La idea es dejar de ser productor de materia prima para poder gozar del valor agregado de la industrialización y así, por ejemplo, fabricar baterías para vehículos, entre otros productos.
El martes, el diario japonés Nikkei aseguró que el Gobierno boliviano cerró trato con su par nipón para explotar el litio; sin embargo, el ministro de Minería, Luis Alberto Echazú, negó esto indicando que “no hubo acuerdo porque la propuesta presentada era muy débil”.
Ante la situación de no conseguir socios concretos, el Ejecutivo decidió marchar solo en la explotación; sin embargo, es consciente de que necesitará apoyo para la industrialización.
“Necesitamos la tecnología para fabricar baterías y nosotros estamos atrasados años luz en esto, es por eso que necesitamos un socio”, subrayó Beltrán.
En estos momentos, el Gobierno construye una planta piloto de producción de carbonato de litio que espera terminar en 2010. En ésta se probarán diferentes procesos de producción, que actualmente son investigados en Bolivia y en Japón.
Luego se diseñará en un año la planta industrial y se definirá el volumen de producción.
Se prevé que a partir de 2014 el país estaría listo para exportar el carbonato de litio y buscar un socio para la industrialización.
La planta además produciría cloruro y sulfato de potasio y el ácido bórico a partir de la salmuera. Este proyecto pretende impulsar la industrialización de otras materias primas de la región suroeste de Potosí y del Salar de Uyuni, que se constituirían en proveedores de insumos para la futura planta industrial.
El analista minero Dionisio Garzón cree que el país puede financiar su propia planta, ya que el costo puede alcanzar los 300 millones de dólares. La industria debe tener mínimamente la capacidad para producir cinco mil toneladas de este compuesto.
Las empresas de Japón serán clientes preferenciales del litio boliviano, en caso de que Bolivia elija el proceso de producción de carbonato que investigan expertos nipones, a partir de las muestras de salmueras extraídas del Salar de Uyuni, dijo el director general de Minería, Freddy Beltrán.
Japón apoya a Bolivia, de forma gratuita, con las pruebas químicas del mineral.
En todo caso, Beltrán aclaró que no se dará preferencias a las firmas japonesas Mitsubishi y Sumitomo (interesadas en las reservas) para formar una sociedad en el proceso de industrialización o fabricación de baterías de litio en el país.
Japón es uno de los países que ha mostrado interés en el mineral boliviano. El jueves 4 de junio, el Gobierno se reunió con una misión empresarial nipona, en la que había representantes de las firmas Mitsubishi, Sumitomo y Japan Oil, y con el embajador del Japón en el país, Kazuo Tanaka.
Ya en febrero, el ejecutivo de Mitsubishi Oji Baba había indicado: “Hay lagos de sal en Chile y Argentina y un depósito prometedor en Tíbet, pero el premio mayor es Bolivia”.
Con 12.000 kilómetros cuadrados, el Salar de Uyuni es uno de los mayores desiertos de sal del mundo, y uno de los principales destinos turísticos bolivianos. Ahora además tiene otra cualidad aún más importante, es la mayor reserva de litio del mundo, seguido por Chile.
Las reservas llegan a 350 millones de toneladas, de las cuales se pueden extraer 140 millones de toneladas, de acuerdo con los cálculos realizados por la Dirección de Recursos Evaporíticos de la Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol).
“Las tecnologías más modernas de extracción” permiten explotar “tan sólo 40 por ciento del litio de la salmuera”, según el informe de Comibol.
Para estudiar y exportar el mineral, el Gobierno dispuso una inversión de seis millones de dólares en una planta piloto que comenzará a producir carbonato de litio de forma experimental en 2010. El precio de la tonelada se ha revalorizado un 400 por ciento en seis años.
La importancia del mineral radica en la necesidad de industrializarlo para que aporte a la fabricación de automóviles eléctricos con baterías que funcionan con litio.
Además, el metal se utiliza en telecomunicaciones, para construir aleaciones livianas de aeronáutica e intensificar los medicamentos psiquiátricos.
Bolivia may go solo with lithium, key to hybrid car batteries
Bolivia wants to exploit its huge lithium reserves on its own without the participation of private foreign companies, a senior government official said in an interview published Sunday.
The government of President Evo Morales has been in discussions since last year with companies from France, Japan and South Korea about developing its reserves of lithium, used to make batteries for gas-electric hybrid vehicles.
But Freddy Beltran, director general of the Mining Ministry, indicated that Bolivia would seek financing to develop the lithium reserves itself.
"In reality, what the state wants is to have the industrial plant with its own resources," Beltran was quoted as saying by the newspaper La Razon. "It doesn’t matter whether we have to look for financial support from a bank or some other entity."
The government has said the private companies want to extract and export lithium in its raw form, while La Paz is adamant about wanting to process it in Bolivia.
The government is currently building a pilot plant in the Andean region of Uyuni to produce lithium carbonate, which is used in the production of lithium car batteries. It is scheduled to go into operation next year.
On a remote Andean plain here, a short drive on unpaved roads from the world’s largest salt flat, 120 government workers are constructing a facility to help power the fuel-efficient electric cars of the future.
The plant, in a sparsely populated region, is supposed to begin producing basic compounds of lithium, which is used to make batteries for cell phones, power tools, computers and other electronic devices, by year’s end.
Government officials think that Bolivia possesses the world’s biggest lithium reserves, and they also think that the country is poised to profit big-time from the automakers’ push to develop electric cars that will run on lithium ion batteries.
"Bolivia will become a big producer in six years of batteries," Luis Alberto Echazu, the minister of mining and metallurgy, said in an interview. He ticked off three companies that he said have expressed interest in investing in the government’s lithium venture: Sumitomo, Mitsubishi and Bollore, a French company.
Officials from the three companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid. It’s typically extracted from beneath salt flats, and about 70 percent of the world’s supplies come from Chile and Argentina. While lithium batteries don’t power hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, analysts think that the fuel-efficient electric cars of the future likely will use them.
Rather than helping lead the way to a cleaner, more fuel-efficient future, however, Bolivia could be a case study on the limits to globalization.
The country’s socialist president, Evo Morales, and its powerful union leaders, are all deeply suspicious of foreigners, and their politics could stymie yet another opportunity for Bolivia to improve the lives of its citizens.
Bolivia, though, has long experience with foreigners who’ve exploited its minerals — tin, silver and gold — and its mineworkers, and with neighboring countries that have annexed its Pacific coast, part of its oil fields and its rubber-growing region.
That helps explain why in 2003 and again in 2005, Bolivians hit the streets to oust their presidents and protest what seemed to be a sensible business proposition: exporting Bolivian natural gas to Chile, the neighbor that cut off Bolivia’s access to the Pacific.
Those protests led to the 2005 election of Morales, the country’s first president of self-proclaimed indigenous ancestry.
He said that the government own and operate any lithium mining operations, and that foreign companies can invest their cash but must play only secondary roles.
A longtime socialist who’s wary of capitalism in general and foreign investors especially, Morales already has nationalized several foreign-owned companies.
In his biggest move as president, he also raised taxes on the foreign companies that hold the rights to Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America, and also gave the government the right to decide when and where the gas is sold.
Morales declared that the gas belonged to Bolivians, not "transnationals," as foreign companies are known here. Bolivians lionized Morales for sticking it to the foreigners.
The result? Foreign gas companies have stopped investing in Bolivia, and Bolivia has been unable to supply the gas it promised in contracts with Brazil and Argentina.
Enrique Arteaga, a mining consultant and a former minister of mining, said that Bolivia already has missed one opportunity to tap the potential of its lithium reserves.
Lithco, an American company, wanted to invest $100 million in the early 1990s in the Salar de Uyuni, a flat expanse of salt so huge that astronauts can see it from space.
Leftist students and union leaders, however, rose in opposition and scuttled the project.
"The Lithco guys said ‘to hell with you’ and went to the Salar del Hombre Muerto (the Dead Man Salt Flats) in Argentina," Arteaga said.
Mining companies also have invested heavily in Chile, while Bolivia’s reserves remain largely unexplored.
Arteaga expressed doubts that the current lithium venture will succeed.
"The state is never a good operator of any industrial operation," Arteaga said. "It will be run by inefficient and unqualified people."
There are physical hurdles, as well as political ones. Heavy rainfall interferes with the evaporation process, and there are no good roads to truck lithium out of landlocked Bolivia.
"There are fairly significant barriers to developing the resource in Bolivia," said Timothy McKenna, vice president of investor relations at Rockwood Holdings, one of the three major lithium producers in Latin America.
Neither Rockwood nor the other two major Latin American lithium producers, SQM and FMC Lithium, have shown any interest in Bolivia.
Morales inaugurated construction of the new $5.7 million facility in May, but work has proceeded at a snail’s pace. Government officials blame state bureaucracy and bitter winter weather, when the temperature drops to zero degrees Fahrenheit at night.
The site is at the southern edge of the Salar de Uyuni, near the town of Rio Grande. More llamas, vicunas (small camels) and ostriches than people prowl the plains.
Getting to the facility requires a two-hour drive over a bumpy dirt road from the town of Uyuni, which has become a popular jumping-off point for backpack travelers to see the salt flats, unique rock formations and odd-colored lakes.
A few travelers even go to San Vicente, several hours away by car, to see the remote mining town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end 100 years ago.
At the lithium facility, workers from the state mining company, Comibol, are mid-way through their first task, erecting two-story barracks. Later, they’ll build evaporation ponds to separate the lithium from the brine of the salt flats.
At the lunch break, the workers line up for bowls of soup followed by bowls of rice, chicken and vegetables. They sit on rocks and try to keep the wind from blowing dust into their food.
They’re a discontented lot.
"We work 21 days, and then get seven days off," said Oscar Crespo, 58. "They take us to Uyuni in the back of a dump truck, packed together like sardines."
"We don’t have any medical care here," added David Bautista, 35, who, like the other workers, wears sunglasses and a woolen facemask to protect him from the sun at 12,000 feet above sea level.
Angel Calcina, 47, said he was wearing coveralls and a hard hat from the private company where he previously worked.
"I don’t understand it," he said. "Private companies treat us better than the state company."
In La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, mining minister Echazu still brims with confidence. He said that foreign companies are welcome, but they must follow the government’s orders.
Francisco Quisbert, who heads a powerful local union in Uyuni, fondly recalls the street protests and hunger strikes that prompted Lithco to abandon plans to invest in Bolivia more than a decade ago.
Quisbert thinks that Bolivia’s lithium will lift thousands from poverty, but he warns that foreign companies must come only on Bolivia’s terms.
"We consider ourselves to be the owners of the salt flats," Quisbert said.
Japan and China fight it out for right to mine lithium under Bond’s battlefield
The desolate, sun-baked deserts of southwestern Bolivia are poised to become the energy battleground of the 21st century, with China and Japan staking early and aggressive claims in the great lithium land-grab.
Japan, observers say, may have won the first round, but, with its mainstream resource ambitions thwarted on the Rio Tinto deal, China could redouble its efforts to gain a foothold in the salt flats of South America and the all-important technology metals.
The flurry of ruthlessly competitive diplomatic and corporate overtures to Bolivia from both Tokyo and Beijing is driven by the same dream: ultimate control of the future global market for electric vehicles. An ample supply of lithium, at least using current technology, is the critical weapon in that quest and Bolivia is to lithium what Saudi Arabia is to oil, say geologists.
Masao Kando, director-general of the metals strategy department of the Japanese Government, say: “We all know that China is becoming the world’s biggest car producer and we see them as our biggest rival. Looking at the Rio Tinto case, we see that China is moving to secure resources by throwing incredibly abundant capital at the effort and it is sometimes hard to compete with that.”
At present, Chile is the world’s biggest annual producer of lithium, but half the planet’s known reserves of the metal are thought to lie under the Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia. The right relationship with La Paz will hold the key to everything, according to senior Japanese officials.
For the two rival Asian economic giants, control of lithium supplies – or at least a firm guarantee of stable future flows – is vital. For Japan, whose export-led economy is dominated by the lithium-hungry auto and electronics industries, it is a fight for survival of the status quo. With reliable long-term sources of lithium, Japanese companies can continue producing batteries for the world’s laptops, digital cameras and mobile phones. With the same guarantee, Japanese car companies will be able to convert their manufacturing prowess to mass production of electric vehicles.
Yet for China the motivation for lithium dominance is even more compelling: the United States, Germany and Japan led the world in the development of petrol-driven cars in the 20th century and it would take many years for Chinese carmakers to match that expertise. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, represent a blank slate: these are pioneering days in the post-combustion engine era and a potentially huge opportunity for China to lunge for early leadership, increasingly nervous Japanese automaker executives believe.
Japan’s latest gambit in the rush for Bolivia’s lithium resources involved a delegation of corporate and government figures, including executives from Sumitomo and Mitsubishi, and what is understood to have been a promise that Japanese mining technology would be shared with their Bolivian counterparts. While the reserves under Salar de Uyuni, where Quantum of Solace, the most recent Bond film, was shot, are thought to be vast, they are not as readily extractable as sources elsewhere. Japan’s expertise is thought to be the solution.
China, whose lands hold about a tenth of the estimated global reserves of lithium, is the world’s third-largest producer and several of its companies have rapidly grown to become substantial global players in lithium battery production. Beijing’s efforts to butter-up the authorities in La Paz have included a donation of cash to help to build a school in the town where President Morales was born and a gift of about 50 military vehicles, including two ships.