Armando Alatorre
College of Mining Engineers, Metallurgists and Geologists of Mexico
Expert Contributor

Mexico’s Lithium Misconceptions and Facts

By Armando Ernesto Alatorre Campos | Mon, 12/07/2020 - 09:00

Lithium is the plat du jour theme around the globe. Almost daily, there are reports about how its demand will grow exponentially in the next 25-30-50 years, given the battery markets where it is mostly used, and regarding developments in the exploration of new deposits and a very long list of perspectives around this element and its mining and processing. 

Mexico has not been immune to this turmoil and the points of view are the most extreme that any mining subject has ever witnessed in the country. On the “technical” side of the recent news and events, AIMMGM held a forum on Nov. 11 (available on the AIMMGM webpage and on YouTube) titled “The Truth About Lithium in Mexico” where a panel of mining experts presented their points of view. The final message was that in spite of lithium’s global importance and the great desire to give it a prominent participation in the world, the geological possibilities in Mexico, at best, are lower. It is not yet known if Bacanora Lithium’s project in Sonora will finally arrive and be able to produce economically, probably over a two- to three-year span. So far, as stated by the company, pilot-plant-scale testing demonstrates that production of lithium carbonate is technically feasible. It must be emphasized that the latter chemical compound is the one used by the lithium-battery market.

However, and very ironic indeed, exactly on that same date in the Senate, a 44-page-long proposal to change article 27 of the Constitution was presented (available on the Senate’s webpage) to “nationalize lithium.” In other words, to elevate it to the same level as gas and petroleum, so that only government entities would be authorized to produce it; even if it is included in the possible creation of Litiomex, the entity to conduct any aspect of this element. To promote this proposal, there is an interview on the internet that offers an enormous array of misconceptions and misunderstandings, to say the least. So, let’s clarify those issues with the sole idea of helping the public really understand what is going on with the lithium subject and, hopefully, so that Senate members make a technically-based decision and not one that is unfounded.

Misconception: “Today, the Mexican mining lithium concessions are used by Chinese, British and Canadians who remove the clay-lithium as river sand, pay us peanuts for it and we then have to import liquid-lithium.”

Fact: Today, not a single mine or company is producing any lithium in the country, not a single ton. There is no place in the world where lithium mining can be conducted as a sand and gravel river operation. When the time comes, mining should be done according to worldwide technical standards to keep it profitable. The most advanced Mexican project has only conducted pilot-plan-testing that is, by definition, in a very reduced scale to call it production. In no place on this planet is lithium used in liquid form. It is a chemical metallic element and the commercial grade most demanded is lithium-carbonate (LiCO3) which can be described as a powder.

Misconception: “Mexico has the largest lithium deposit in the world.”

Fact: Since 2016, the British Geological Survey’s list of 15 countries with available lithium resources has placed Mexico at the very bottom, along with Austria and Finland. Every paper available on the size of lithium deposits establishes that Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is the largest, yet undeveloped, deposit on the planet. In the mining industry, worldwide, the size of any mineral deposit is compared to the base of the total content of the economic metal or mineral and this number came as a result of the tonnage AND the percentage (grade) of the element under consideration. Therefore, tonnage alone does not provide any reliable number for such a statement.

Misconception: On page 2 of the proposed change to the Constitution, it reads: “the Mexican authority is on time to regulate the exploitation of lithium carbonate.”

Fact: Lithium carbonate is not a mining product at all in any place in the world. Lithium-carbonate is not equal to mine-lithium. That chemical compound is produced in a chemical facility after processing the lithium from the mines. Therefore, it is not clear at all what the proposal is looking at; if the main idea is to control lithium carbonate, there is not any justification to nationalize anything.

Misconception: On page 3 of the proposed change to the Constitution, it reads: “in other countries, lithium is on the surface and can recovered with water and in others it is in saline domes.”

Fact: In other countries, like, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, to cite a few, lithium is found dissolved in underground water from where it has to be concentrated and extracted. Besides that, not a single saline dome on the planet has any lithium reported; the geology and the rocks are completely different.

Misconception: On page 14 of the proposed change to the Constitution, it reads: “Mexico is the first country with the most important and of the larger quantity of lithium in the world, found in Sonora (Bacadéhuachi), with potential reserves of 243.8 million tons” (this amount is repeated on page 18 of the proposal. As a matter of contradiction, on page 22, it reads: “Bolivia is the richest lithium country”).

Fact: It has been already explained that Bacadéhuachi’s is not the largest in the world and, also that to classify a deposit by its size, a combination of tonnage and grade (percent) of the element must be considered. Although 243.8 million tons might sound like a huge number, what is not said is that the grade is only 0.348% lithium. Just for comparison, the main Chilean salar has twice as much percentage and the Jadar deposit in Serbia contains 1.8 percent lithium.

Misconception: On page 37 of the proposed change to the Constitution, it reads: “at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, the country with the largest lithium reserves, the water available has been reduced because of the extraction of this metal, which has affected the nearby communities.

Fact: It is impossible that anyone has been affected because it has not produced any lithium yet, at least not of commercial relevance; not a single publication has reported Bolivia as a lithium producing country.

Unfortunately, since someone published a headline about Mexico having the largest lithium deposit in the world, much noise and dust have been generated. But no-one has asked the mining specialists what really is and what is not generating distorted views and false expectations; furthermore, to make matters worse, many of the references cited in the proposal came from nontechnical, antimining publications that are not the best to support a sound change of any law of any kind.