La Paz – A consortium made up of the South Korean firms Korea Resources Corporation and Posco will build a pilot plant in Bolivia to manufacture lithium cathodes, the main component in lithium-ion batteries, the Bolivian government said.
The president of the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation, or Comibol, Héctor Cordoba, signed an agreement for the plant Tuesday in this capital with his counterparts from Kores, Shin-Jong Kim, and Posco, Joon Kwon.
Bolivian Mining Minister Mario Virreira and congressman Lee Sang-deuk, brother of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, presided over the ceremony.
The pilot plant will be a staging ground for determining the technology to be adopted at a future industrial plant the three companies plan to install in Bolivia, the manager of Comibol's Evaporite Resources Department, Alberto Echazú, told reporters.
He added that Comibol and the South Korean consortium will each cover half of the $1.5 million cost of building the small plant at at a site yet to be determined.
Echazú noted that "there are many countries interested" in participating in industrializing the raw lithium extracted from the Uyuni Salt Flat in the southwestern Andean province of Potosi, "but the most serious proposal has come from the Kores-Posco consortium."
According to Echazú, Bolivia still may partner with other companies to make the remaining components needed for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries, which La Paz has established as a long-term goal.
Lithium-ion batteries are used to power a range of electronic devices, including cellphones, laptops and digital audio players.
The Uyuni Salt Flat, a dried-up sea bed that stretches over a more than 10,000-square-kilometer (some 4,000-square-mile) area, is the world's largest reserve of the planet's lightest metal.
The Bolivian government says the salt flat contains 100 million tons of lithium reserves, although the U.S. Geological Survey puts the figure at just 9 million tons.
President Evo Morales' government has been working since 2009 to install a pilot plant to make lithium carbonate at Uyuni and its goal is to show results in "industrializing" the metal before 2014.
Specialists, however, have repeatedly criticized the government's project, citing a lack of significant progress toward installation of a lithium-ion battery plant.
Virreira acknowledged Tuesday that the project should be accelerated but expressed confidence that "positive results" will be achieved shortly following the agreement with the South Korean consortium.
"We're aware that we have to run. We have to catch up in the technological and productive advances in the use of lithium and that commitment is behind this point of departure," the minister added.