UYUNI, BOLIVIA – Japan and Bolivia have begun a full-fledged trial project to extract lithium from the Uyuni salt flats in the Andes, which experts believe contains around half of the world’s reserves of the soft metal.
As the only foreign country involved in the extraction work at the 10,600-sq.-km Uyuni site, considered the largest salt flats in the world, Japan hopes to gain an advantage in the race to secure supplies of lithium, a critical component in making batteries for many electronic appliances and electric cars.
But several major hurdles remain before the Uyuni salt flats can be commercialized, notably left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales’ advocacy for the country’s lithium-related operations to be nationalized.
The project, at an elevation of 3,656 meters, started in November 2010 when the government-affiliated Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. and the Bolivian government agreed to jointly produce lithium at the Uyuni site. Operations got under way late last year.
The Japanese side has provided all of the necessary equipment for the extraction process, while Japanese trading houses have also taken part in the project. “We intend to build a relationship (with Bolivia) by continuing to offer technical support,” said Hideya Metsugi, an official of the energy corporation who is in charge of the Uyuni project.
Bolivia, for its part, has conducted its own experiment on the salt flats. In January, Morales said his country had succeeded in producing highly pure lithium carbonate, a substance required to make lithium-ion batteries, using only Bolivian technologies.
The Bolivian government has been calling on Japanese automakers to set up factories in the country since lithium-ion batteries are essential in the manufacture of electric vehicles.
Other hurdles before full-scale lithium extraction can commence at Uyuni include the fact that is thought to contain a higher degree of impure substances than other salt flats. In addition, Bolivia does not have an official diplomatic relationship with neighboring Chile, which operates the nearest port for shipping the lithium overseas. The transportation costs would thus be substantial.