Bolivian state-owned lithium company YLB has inked a new deal with a Chinese consortium to install a pilot plant at the vast Uyuni salt flat, which would use Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology.
The project will see the construction of a 2,500 tonnes-per-year lithium carbonate facility that will be operated by the CBC consortium, formed by CATL, BRUNP and CMOC.
CATL is the world’s largest battery maker for electric vehicles (EV). BRUNP is CATL’s subsidiary focused on recycling technologies and CMOC, previously known as China Molybdenum Company Limited, is the largest molybdenum producer in Mainland China.
The partners, which expect lithium from the project within 18 months, hope that the pilot plant will demonstrate the feasibility and profitability of extracting the coveted light metal from the brine under the salt crust using DLE technology, and pave the way for larger-scale operations in the future.
The fresh $90 million deal between Bolivia and CBC follows a similar one inked in January last year $1.4 billion for the construction of two DLE industrial plants with a combined capacity of 25,000 tonnes per year.
The typical method to extract lithium involves pumping brine into ponds and processing the lithium salts that crystallize once the water has evaporated.
The Bolivian state has invested more than $800 million in this method in the past two-years, but has admitted to relatively poor results.
Evaporation ponds work well enough in the salt flats of neighbouring Chile and Argentina, but seems less suited to Bolivia, where the brine has high levels of impurities and the salt flats have a rainy season that lasts several months.
DLE methods pull lithium straight from brine, potentially eliminating the need for solar evaporation, and also reducing water consumption and dependency on the weather.
The South American landlocked country has a history of unfulfilled lithium dreams. It has tried and failed to develop its industry several times since the 1990s, producing an accumulated 1,400 tonnes since 2018.
World output of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE), a semi-processed form of the metal, hit 737,000 tonnes in 2022 and preliminary data shows it reached 985,000 tonnes last year, according to the latest report from Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources.
Bolivia has signed agreements with two other Chinese companies, CBC and Citic Guoan, as well as with Russia’s Uranium One Group, to build lithium carbonate production facilities.
The government has also tied up with Altmin, an Indian firm, to develop the technology of cathode materials for lithium batteries.
In December, it opened its first industrial-scale lithium plant. The $100 million facility is expected to produce as much as 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year. Initial output won’t be battery grade and the plant will reach full capacity in 2025.