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Bolivia’s Development Of Salar De Uyuni Lithium Project Takes Step Forward Following South Korea Deal – Analyst

NEW YORK (Metal-Pages) 06-Apr-12. The development of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni lithium project could receive a shot in the arm following a deal struck by state-owned Mining Corporation of Bolibia (Comibol) with South Korean state company KORES and compatriot steelmaker POSCO, according to Juan Carlos Zuleta, a lithium economics analyst in Bolivia.

Speaking to Metal-Pages, Zuleta said that the South Korean consortium had recently discovered and patented a method to produce lithium cathodes directly out of the brines from Salar de Uyuni without first having to produce lithium carbonate.

"If successful, this project could change dramatically the lithium industry with important implications for the automotive industry as well," said Zuleta."What is more, Bolivia, the country with most lithium on earth, could, in effect, bypass all of its competitors in the lithium market and pave the way to massive car electrification in the world."

Zuleta has previously raised questions over the viability of Bolivia's lithium pilot plant in Salar de Uyuni because of the use of traditional solar evaporation extraction processes.

The extraction of lithium carbonate using traditional techniques usually takes about 14 to 18 months, according to Zuleta.

But the deal signed with KORES and POSCO could side-step the solar evaporation process as it uses a combination of chemicals and high-tech procedures, which may produce large quantities of different kinds of lithium cathodes out of brines.

"Traditional solar evaporation extraction processes are becoming obsolete. Those responsible for the pilot plant acknowledged this for the first time in January of this year," said Zuleta.

Under the deal, KORES and POSCOwill build a pilot plant in Bolivia to produce lithium cathodes, with both sides sharing equally in a $1.5million investment.

A decision will be taken next year about technology for the industrial lithium cathode plant.

In August 2011, the Bolivian government signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea to start developing the Uyuni salt flat through potential partnerships with companies from the Asian country.

But Zuleta noted that Bolivia was not able to secure a stake in the patented technology developed by the consortium to produce lithium cathodes.

"The main problem with this deal is that Bolivia was not able to negotiate with the South Korean consortium its participation in the benefits arising from the patent. Without the brine samples Bolivia provided at no cost to South Korea, none of this would have been
possible," he said.

He added that Bolivian authorities have announced that they will start producing 5,000 metric tons of lithium cathodes in 2013.

Bolivia previously rejected offers aimed at mining lithium rather than its development from France's Bolloré, South Korea's LG, and Japan's Mitsubishi and Sumitomo.

By Sean Barry in New York (sean@metal-pages.com)

* The report was published yesterday by metal-pages.com and can be available only for subscribers at http://www.metal-pages.com/news/story/61565/bolivias-development-of-salar-de-uyuni-lithium-project-takes-step-forward-following-south-korea-deal-analyst/