InterviewBolivia's potential to make lithium is overblown

20 October 2009 21:09  [Source: ICIS news]

By Ivan Lerner

NEW YORK (ICIS news)--The potential of Bolivia to become a major source of lithium is exaggerated, an executive with major US-based lithium supplier FMC said on Tuesday.

“People are interested in Bolivia because of the size of its deposits, ,” said Eric Norris, global commercial director for FMC’s lithium division.

However, there is already plenty of lithium in the world, whether it is in the rest of South America, Australia or Asia, Norris said.

The as-yet-untapped lithium reserves in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni are estimated by the US Geological Survey to be around 5.4m tonnes, or around 50% of the world's proven reserves.

But developing Bolivia’s lithium resources would take a lot of time, money and know-how, Norris said, especially since there is practically no infrastructure in the Salar region.

Bolivia has so far denied foreign investors entry, and has, through state mining company Comibol, started building a lithium processing facility at the Salar.

“The Bolivians are spending about $400m [€268m] on the plant by the Salar, but FMC, Chemetall and Sociedad Quimica y Minera [SQM] can increase capacity at a fraction of that cost,” he added.

Chemetall is a unit of US-based Rockwood Holdings and SQM is a Chilean chemical and fertilizer firm.

FMC “can bring on more capacity as needed at an economical cost,” Norris said.

FMC, Chemetall and SQM are considered the global leaders in lithium production, and according to Credit Suisse, can add roughly 25% more capacity – each with a $40m-50m investment.

Bolivia is relying on an expected boom in electric vehicles to make its lithium desirous, but Norris said that lithium’s growth to date has been driven by consumer electronics, and that the nation might be overextending itself.

“As of today, lithium is not being used in the vehicles on the road,” Norris said.

“These cars, while scheduled, are all [still] under development,” he added.

($1 = €0.67)

For more analysis and insight on Bolivian lithium, look for the 2 November 2009 issue of ICIS Chemical Business magazine
To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect


By: Ivan Lerner
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