Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Thoughts on Lithium

April 29th, 2009 · 3 Comments

So there’s a fresh stir over Bolivia’s massive lithium reserves, which a French industrialist hopes to tap virtually all by his lonesome.

This isn’t news to Microkhan, since we helped coin the term “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” last fall. But the object of our interest back then was Chile, currently the world’s leading lithium producer. And despite our acknowledgement that, yes, the Bolivian reserves in the Salar de Uyuni are larger than in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, there are two technical factors to keep in mind.

Firstly, the Bolivian lithium is much more tainted with magnesium, an impurity that must be excised before the commodity can be prepared for market. And perhaps more importantly, the Salar de Uyuni is less drenched in solar radiation than the Salar de Atacama. Since the lithium-rich “brine” is prepared for processing by leaving it in outdoor pools, this makes a big difference; a pool of Chilean brine will be ready for processing in a much shorter time frame than a pool of Bolivian brine. (We go into much more detail in our Forbes piece, so please check it out.)

Bottom line: Chile will remain the world’s leading lithium producer for the foreseeable future. If there’s anyone to watch right now, it’s the Chinese—they’ve got some big projects going in Tibet, which have already depressed lithium carbonate prices by about 10 percent. But how are they doing it, considering they face some of the same technical hurdles as the Bolivians? The utter lack of labor standards may be one factor.

(Photo of Chilean lithium pool by Microkhan, September 2008)


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