Bolivia’s huge resources face huge challenges, Simon Moores points out
by Greg Klein
It’s a testament to Lithium market expectations that companies will compete with each other to do business in Bolivia. When news broke that the country wanted help to develop its fabled Salar de Uyuni, several firms showed willingness to overlook a history of investment confiscation. So has one of the world’s worst mining jurisdictions become serious about opening what just might be the world’s largest lithium resources?
Yes, an April 21 government announcement would seem to indicate. Media reports say the German firm ACI Systems GmbH had been selected out of five applicants from China and one each from Canada and Russia to team up with the state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos, which would hold the lion’s share of a 51%/49% joint venture. The actual agreement has yet to be signed.
Clearly there’s an incentive for Bolivia to change its approach to mining. According to la Razón, the deal calls for $900 million from YLB (all figures in U.S. dollars) and $1.3 billion plus expertise from ACI to develop facilities that would process lithium and manufacture batteries and cathodes, primarily for the European electric vehicle market. Expected to come online within 18 months, the industry might eventually provide Bolivia with a forecasted $1.2 billion in annual revenues, 1,200 direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs.
It takes enormous mineral potential to rationalize such optimism. While estimates can vary wildly, they all rate Bolivia highly. Uyuni has “likely the largest accumulation of lithium in the world,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey, citing a 2013 estimate of nine million tonnes at an average concentration of about 320 ppm. Another USGS report estimates a 2017 global total of 53 million tonnes, with 9.8 million tonnes in Argentina, nine million in Bolivia, 8.4 million in Chile, seven million in China, five million in Australia and 1.9 million in Canada. Comparing Bolivia with its Lithium Triangle neighbours, Industrial Minerals credits Uyuni with three times the resources of Chile’s Salar de Atacama and nearly 20 times that of Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto. Some media reports say Bolivia holds as much as a quarter of global supply.
Resources mean little and economic reserves mean everything.
“There is no doubt that Bolivia has a huge lithium resource with Uyuni, most probably the biggest in the world,” notes Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “But resources mean little and economic reserves mean everything.
“In these economic terms—extracting the lithium in a usable form for the battery industry at a reasonable cost—Chile and Argentina are light years ahead of Bolivia,” he informs ResourceClips.com.
The country has been conducting pilot scale work, but nothing comparable to its neighbours. In contrast to Chile’s Atacama, Moores says, Uyuni’s high magnesium content and lower evaporation rate present processing challenges. “Most likely new or adapted processing methods will have to be employed, which adds a further layer of complexity.”
As for political risk, “the jury is out on any partnership in Bolivia,” he stresses. “In 2009, when this story first broke, there were a number of high-profile partners involved. Every partnership to date has failed. This is not to say any present or future partnership will share the same fate, but you are not only dealing with a challenging resource—despite its size—you are dealing with Bolivia and all the political problems that come with that. The risk is huge.
“Then when you are in production, the risk is even bigger. You just have to see the problems SQM has had with the Chilean government at a time of high prices and high demand. And they have been operating since the mid-90s.”
If Albemarle, SQM, Ganfeng, Tianqi, FMC get involved then you will have to stand up and take notice. Until that point, Bolivia will always be a lithium outside shot.
As for other companies entering Bolivia, Moores sees the possibility of “a handful of explorers becoming active and maybe one or two ‘industrial’ partners. But the key thing we always look for at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence is partners with lithium processing experience. If Albemarle, SQM, Ganfeng, Tianqi, FMC get involved then you will have to stand up and take notice. Until that point, Bolivia will always be a lithium outside shot.”
He regards Bolivia’s infrastructure as another large challenge, but not the country’s largest. “If big mining groups can make this happen in Africa, they can make it happen in Bolivia. The biggest focus should be economic extraction and the long-term viability of Uyuni. This is the biggest hurdle.”
Simon Moores speaks at the International Mining Investment Conference in Vancouver on May 15, the first day of the two-day event. For a 25% admission discount click here and enter the code RESOURCECLIPS.
On May 16 Moores presents the Vancouver stop of the Benchmark World Tour 2018. Click here for the complete tour schedule and free registration.