Focus-Science and Technology - - Earth -

Lithium car­bon­ate is ex­tracted from the salt desert by pip­ing brine from be­low the crust into large evap­o­ra­tion pools. Three litres of Salar de Uyuni brine con­tain less than a gram of lithium metal, so it is con­cen­trated un­der the glare of the Sun be­fore be­ing col­lected for pro­cess­ing. The lithium at Salar de Uyuni is also bound up with mag­ne­sium, which has to be re­moved be­fore the lithium can be turned into elec­trodes and elec­trolytes for bat­ter­ies.

Right now, there is only one work­ing pi­lot plant at the salt flat, where, as former di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the plant, Raúl Martinez, ex­plains, 99.7 per cent pure, bat­tery- grade lithium is be­ing pro­duced. “This project demon­strates that the Bo­li­vians have all the po­ten­tial to ob­tain lithium car­bon­ate of com­mer­cial and bat­tery- grade in the salt flats,” he says. How­ever, the state min­ing com­pany Comi­bol may need to scale up its op­er­a­tions. It shipped less than 30 tonnes of lithium car­bon­ate in 2016, mak­ing the tar­get of 10,000 tonnes by 2021 seem like a stretch. Bid­ding for con­struc­tion of a sec­ond plant, de­signed by Ger­man com­pany K-UTEC, is un­der­way.

MAIN IM­AGE: Evap­o­ra­tion pools, sep­a­rated by lev­ees, con­cen­trate the lithium BE­LOW RIGHT: Lithium- rich brine is pumped from be­neath the crust

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