Nine companies have been selected to conduct pilot lithium extraction projects by the Bolivian government as the country looks to develop large-scale production of the key lithium-ion battery material.
The unnamed firms were chosen following an international call for proposals to develop deposits in the salt flats of Uyuni, Coipasa and Pastos Grandes.
State-owned lithium company Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos (YLB) was founded in 2017 to oversee the development of the country’s lithium industry.
YLB will evaluate the bidders to determine which extraction technology is the most suitable for the Bolivian resources.
The latest projects are expected to use Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) methods in the Salar de Uyuni salt flat, which has an estimated lithium resource of 21 million tonnes (mn/t).
DLE extracts lithium directly from brine water, without having to evaporate the brines first, which has environmental concerns.
Bolivia hopes the technology will allow it to eventually produce cathodes, lithium carbonate and lithium batteries.
Bolivia has the world's largest lithium resource, when compared with resources of 19.3 mn/t in Argentina; 9.6mn/t in Chile; 6.4mn/t in Australia; and 5.1mn/t in China, according to the US Geological Survey.
Although the firms remain unnamed, Russia’s state owned Rosatom State Atomiс Energy Corporation (ROSTOM) signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Ministry of Energies of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to cooperate in developing the lithium industry through industrial projects and research.
In 2019, the Bolivian government awarded lithium production contracts to German company ACI Systems and China's Xinjiang TBEA, but they were stalled amid local opposition and were put on hold by November 2019.
Lithium extraction methods
Bolivia received $11.6 million from lithium production in the first six months of the year, according to YLB.
Around 6,000 tons of lithium carbonate and potassium chloride was produced and sold during the first half of the year and the goal is to “double” that by the end of the year, said Marcelo Gonzales, executive president of YLB, in July
YLB has been running a pilot operation, producing several hundred tonnes of lithium carbonate per year.
The company told media outlet Argus Media: "There are five to six types of Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology that are being developed; each company employs different technology, which must be adapted to the type of raw material that our salt flats have. The objective is to identify what type of technology is best suited to the recovery of Bolivian lithium."
The Bolivian government is looking to develop a vertically integrated supply chain within Bolivia under local ownership, rather than having international companies exporting raw materials.