A group of Chinese firms is partnering with YLB, Bolivia’s state-owned lithium mining company, to build a $1 billion project to exploit the country’s large—and mostly untapped—lithium resources.
In 2021, YLB started soliciting proposals to mine Bolivia’s lithium using direct lithium extraction (DLE), a set of technologies that use sorbents, membranes, or other materials to separate lithium from salty brines. It received submissions from companies in Argentina, China, Russia, and the US.
YLB has announced that it will move forward with a group that includes the battery company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL); CATL’s recycling subsidiary, BRUNP; and the mining company CMOC. They aim to build two DLE plants, each capable of producing 25,000 metric tons (t) of lithium carbonate annually for use in batteries.
It’s unlikely that the project will hit that target, according to Andy Leyland, founder of the battery supply chain consultancy SC Insights. Local opposition and changes in political leadership have stopped Bolivian lithium projects in the past, he says, and the same factors are still a challenge.
Joe Lowry, a lithium industry consultant, also has doubts about the project and notes that companies have been trying to mine Bolivia’s lithium resources for decades. “They never seem to finalize a deal,” he says.
Bolivia has 21 million t of lithium resources, more than any other country, according to the US Geological Survey. YLB does extract some lithium using conventional brine evaporation but so far hasn’t achieved large-scale production with that method. Meanwhile. neighboring Argentina and Chile together produce close to 40% of the world’s lithium, mostly in conventional evaporation ponds.
In addition, Leyland says, relying on DLE is risky because the technology is unproved at scale. None of the companies in the selected group has produced large quantities of lithium using DLE, and Leyland says they may end up outsourcing the development of the technology. Some of the seven firms that lost out, including Lilac Solutions and Fusion Enertech, have DLE technology. “Even if it starts working at a pilot plant . . . you’ve got challenges when you scale things,” Leyland says.
At a press conference in Bolivia, the group didn’t reveal much information about its process but claimed it could extract 90% of the lithium from brines.
Leyland says it’s worth noting that, as the world’s largest consumer of lithium chemicals, CATL is highly motivated to secure supplies to fuel its battery business. “If it works, the taps are open,” he says. “They need the lithium.”