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Korean consortium forming JV with Bolivian miner Comibol for lithium production in Salar de Uyuni

Korea Herald. A Korean consortium including Korea Resources Corp. (KORES) and steelmaker POSCO has entered an agreement with Bolivia’s state-run miner Comibol (Corporación Minera de Bolivia) to set up a joint venture to produce lithium intended for lithium-ion batteries. KORES said that Korean Li-ion manufacturers SK Innovation and LG Chem are also likely to participate in the project.

The scale of investment and the launch date of the JV are still to be settled.

The deal makes Korea the first country to do battery business with Bolivia...About 10 countries including the US, Japan, France and Brazil competed to partner with the Latin American nation, the state-run mineral developer said.

“The agreement will enable Korea to gain the upper hand over them,” said Kim Shin-jong, KORES president. “Korea’s advanced technology and Bolivia’s resources will create synergy.” Korea has been spurring its drive to secure scarce minerals in the Latin American region. The joint venture will also pave the way for Asia’s fourth-largest economy to take part in a project to develop lithium carbonate in the region, officials said.

A joint research project involving extracting lithium will begin next month at Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat, with an area of more than 11,000 square kilometers), KORES said. POSCO plans to bid for construction of lithium-carbonate manufacturing and processing facilities in Uyuni, it added.

According to a January 2011 update by the US Geological Survey (USGS), identified lithium resources total 4 million tons in the United States and approximately 29 million tons in other countries. Among the other countries, identified lithium resources for Bolivia and Chile total 9 million tons and in excess of 7.5 million tons, respectively. China and Argentina total 5.4 million tons and 2.6 million tons of identified lithium resources, respectively, while Brazil, Congo, and Serbia each contain approximately 1 million tons. Identified lithium resources for Australia and Canada total 630,000 tons and 360,000 tons, respectively.

Comibol disagrees with the ongoing USGS assessment of the Salar de Uyuni resources:

Year after year, the USGS (United States Geological Survey) continues to publish that Uyuni has a reserve of 5.5 million tonnes of lithium...Only by drilling more boreholes all over the Salar will we be able to determine the true depth of the brine, its salts content, and the real reserves of lithium. Nevertheless, we can make a new estimate, based on the information available today and assuming the following hypotheses:

The Salar is an inverted cone, with an area of 10,000 km2 at its base and a depth of 220 m; the pattern of lithium concentrations is the one found by ORSTOM at the centre of the Salar; the layers of salt and layers of clay alternate in the manner found by Duke University at the centre of the Salar; Lithium can only be extracted from the brine in the layers of salt, and these, according to ORSTOM, have an average porosity of 40% over the Salar as a whole.

According to the data collected and based on the above hypotheses, we can state that there are more than 350 million tonnes of metallic lithium in the Salar. Even using the most modern extraction technologies, however, no more than 40% of the lithium in the brine can be physically recovered. This means that the reserves of lithium that are realistically available and could be supplied by Uyuni to the world are 140 million tonnes of lithium.

Korea imports all of its lithium needs, which nearly doubled to 11,000 tons last year compared with 5,200 tons in 2008. Prices reached $4,752 per ton as of 28 July, up $200 compared with last month and almost 100% from 2003, government data show.

The global lithium market has been expanding by 6% annually since 2000, according to KORES. It forecasts the rate will top 20% in the coming years given demand projections for electric drive vehicles.

The South Korean government is targeting a 10% self-sufficiency rate this year for “national strategic resources” such as lithium and other rare metals.

Comments

HarveyD

Worldwide lithium metal reserves are certain;y a lot larger than many speculators claim. In Bolivia, it could be as high as 350+ million tons instead of the 5 million tons previously assumed. New sources are found almost every month. By 2015/2020, known reserves may be as high as 1000+ million tons.

Assuming that lithium batteries are still around or being built, the world will not move to other technologies because of a shortage of lithium but because other elements can do the job better or cheaper.

Mannstein

If there is so much lithium around why is the price shooting up? Can't all be speculation.

MG

For Bolivia, it's probably better they selected Koreans, rather than US or French partners, as they would likely put all sorts of political pressure on them, or play dirty tricks, to get better deal for their companies. US and France could require that in return Bolivia buys un-needed military equipment from them, like fighter jets. Luckily for Bolivia, they are far away from Nato countries, and are surrounded with mostly friendly neighbours (except Chile), so shouldn't fear military invasion, in the name of humanitarian intervention.

@ Mannstein,
It takes time to develop new mineral deposits. In this case the lithium ones. Several new car battery factories are being built, the demand for lithium-carbonate increased in relatively short time. As usual, when supply is restricted, price goes up. Perhaps speculation artificially amplifies the price movement.

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