June/July 2010

Lithium boom in South America

Surging interest in mineral-rich salt flats

By C. Kroll

Salar del Hombre Muerto 

The Salar del Hombre Muerto region in Argentina, the location of FMC Lithium's facility

Much of the world’s lithium supply is on the high Andean plateaus of South America, and companies from around the world, expecting elevated demand, are staking their claims to the vast deposits in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.

Partnered with Australian mineral exploration company Orocobre Limited, Toyota recently invested in land in the northern Argentine province of Jujuy to extract lithium for car battery manufacturing. Orocobre reported Toyota will pay $4.5 million to complete a feasibility study — which should be ready for the fall of 2010 — and acquire 25 per cent equity interest in the venture.

Orocobre already has a project operating in the Jujuy Province, in Salar de Olaroz, as well as 60,000 hectares on 10 salars, or salt flats, in the Argentine provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Catamarca. According to Orocobre, production in Salar de Olaroz is expected to start in 2011. In addition, the company will acquire approximately 41,000 hectares of land just outside the Salar de Olaroz site.

As noted in a release from the company, the Salinas Grandes area shows the highest grade average lithium and potassium results from any sampling program in Argentina, with average grades of 1,409 milligrams of lithium per litre (mg/L) and 16,394 mg/L potassium. In total, they are contiguous extensions of the existing resource of 350 million kilolitres of brine at 800 grams of lithium per kilolitre.

Near the Jujuy frontier, in the province of Salta, the local government confirmed a number of companies are investing in lithium: Ekeko and Li3 Energy sondea in Salar de Pozuelos; Li One, Orocobre, Minera Exar, Compañía Minera Solitario Argentina, Latin American Minerals Argentina, Rodiña and Bolloré Group. French conglomerate Bolloré is working with the mining firm Eramet, which has stated “the consortium continues to examine various projects, including a project for a complete industrial chain for lithium in Bolivia.”

The energy company Li3 is also in the act, having recently announced purchase agreements to acquire the rights of the Puna Lithium portfolio. The portfolio consists of four mining properties located in Puna, known to have resource potential for lithium and potassium. Among them, the Centenario salar has been confirmed to return values of up to 1,500 mg/L lithium, and the Rincon salar reported an estimated 1.4 million tonnes of lithium. The company claims that, combined with Li3’s other holdings in Nevada and Peru, the newly acquired land in Argentina and Chile makes Li3 one of the largest holders of prospective lithium acreage in the world.

Also, with an eye on the growing market for car batteries, the Canadian auto parts giant Magna has invested some $7 million initially in exchange for land from Lithium Americas, a Canadian company that specializes in lithium extraction in the northern Argentine Puna Plateau. Magna also recently announced that it intends to build two lithium-ion battery plants to supply electric vehicles.

Bolivian potential

Bolivia has the world’s largest lithium reserves — nearly 40 per cent of the worldwide supply — although the reserves remain unexploited. This is about to change, as the Bolivian Mining and Metallurgy Ministry is preparing a new model facility for lithium manufacturing in the Salar de Uyuni. The 12,000-square-kilometre salt flat on the Bolivian high plateau holds nine million tonnes of lithium reserves, according to the country’s mining ministry.

The government’s plan is to obtain 40 tonnes per month of lithium carbonate, potassium sulphate, as well as other products. Along with the Bolloré Group, Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi has shown interest in exploring the Salar de Uyuni to build lithium batteries, said the government.

Bolivian president Evo Morales is looking for a partner to exploit 50 per cent of the iron and lithium reserves in the Cerro Mutún. The Bolivian vice-minister of production development, Héctor Córdoba, has met with executives from Hyundai in South Korea, reported Spanish news agency EFE.

Longstanding producers

According to a report of the International Lithium Corporation, the three largest South American lithium producers are SQM, Chemetall and FMC Chemical.

FMC Lithium, a subsidiary of FMC Chemical, owns a lithium facility in Salar del Hombre Muerto and has been producing lithium products in Argentina since 1998. “Argentina provides the base lithium building blocks for nearly all of our lithium sales and downstream production,” said Sallie Hendrick, marketing communications specialist for FMC Lithium. “To ensure we can meet the future needs of our growing customers and maintain our share of a growing market, FMC Lithium has embarked on expansion plans at its salar in Argentina, with projected completion expected in late 2011.” The initiative will increase the company’s lithium brine and carbonate capacities by about 30 per cent, she said.

Chemetall Foote is also very active in the Latin American lithium scenario with its La Negra production facility, located in the Antofagasta region in Chile. The plant has been functioning since 1984, producing lithium carbonate based on the natural brines from the Atacama salar.

Finally, SQM lithium operations include the brines located in the Salar de Atacama region in Chile. In this location, the company produces lithium carbonate, potassium chloride, potassium sulphate, boric acid and magnesium chloride. This company estimates thatthe reserves located in the Salar de Atacama, with the current production levels, would last at least 30 more years.

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