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Bolivian lithium: the blunders continue *

As  the United States prepares to welcome with great expectation the first mass-produced electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries by Nissan and General Motors by the end of this year, and Chile, according to El Mercurio of Antofagasta in its edition of May 29, 2010, gets ready to increase by 70 or 80% its lithium sales in international markets over the next five or seven years, former minister Alberto Echazú – who now appears as Evaporite Resources Director at Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL) - just announced that by October or November of this year Bolivia is expected to take the first production of potassium salts. 

This notice confirms that the pilot project will further contribute to an already long list of mistakes with serious economic consequences for the country, without anyone being able to bring this to a halt. It would be good to begin operating some form of social control also for the most strategic project in Bolivia that to date has only served to fill the agenda of the principal officers of government with visits of and to the most powerful countries in the world. 

As known, the process of brine evaporation of potassium takes much less than that of lithium. In this sense, it was predictable to obtain first potassium than lithium. What is not clear, however, is why it took the government more than two years to "reinvent the wheel." Moreover, the "recycled" authority now tells us that in the coming weeks the project will begin to build evaporation ponds and dams to thereafter proceed to seal them with synthetic fibers and membranes, which means that not earlier than two months from now the project´s ponds will be under conditions suitable to begin the process of evaporation. Considering that more than two years of experimentation at the project did not lead to  discovering anything new in this regard, we may assume that the evaporation of potassium will take about eight months while that of lithium will take about 18 months. All these data are well known in the industry of evaporite resources. 

This signifies that the production of potassium salts announced by the former minister to take place in October or November will probably be nothing more than a new version of a meanignless show to present just a few kilos of potassium chloride to try to make the public believe that the country initiated the industrialization of potassium. Hopefully, this time the event will not give rise to a new award by some influential newspaper granted to the technicians of the plant "for a great achievement ", as happened in recent months. 

Now, if, indeed, the process of brine evaporation begins in August this year, for example, under normal conditions we would have the first results for potassium in April 2011 and for lithium in February 2012. To this must be added some time for the chemical processing of evaporated salts, so that the country can obtain at a later date yet to be determined a monthly production of 40 metric tons (NYSE:MT) per month of lithium carbonate and a few more MTs of potassium chloride ready for commercialization. I wonder if by then we will at least know when the country will begin producing (mainly) lithium carbonate on industrial scale, which will allow Bolivia to enter with a firm step to one of the most interesting markets on earth today. In these circumstances, we can only hope that there will still be room for Bolivian lithium. 

In short, it is a pity that the country is about to lose a golden opportunity to become a true world-class energy power, while poverty and lack of “decent” jobs are widespread, forcing, in many cases, the most disadvantaged members of society to engage in activities not always consonant with the law and peaceful coexistence.

*   This article was originally published in Spanish on El on June 1st, 2010.

Disclosure: Author is a lithium economics analyst based in La Paz, Bolivia. In January 2010 he participated as an invited speaker at the Lithium Supply & Markets Conference held in Las Vegas, USA. He holds no positions in any stocks.