South Korea Gov. and Posco to build lithium extraction plant

The South Korean government signed a deal Tuesday with leading steelmaker POSCO (KSE:005490) to cooperate in extracting lithium from seawater, in a bid to secure a stable source of the material used in batteries for electric cars, mobile phones and other personal devices, government officials said.

Under the deal, the government and POSCO are to invest a combined 30 billion won (US$26 million) in building a lithium-extracting plant with the aim of completing the commercialization of the material obtained from seawater by 2014, according to the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.

They also hope to produce around 20,000-100,000 tons of lithium annually from 2015. The ministry said, however, that it has yet to decide where to locate the plant.

The deal comes as the amount of lithium that can be obtained on land is quickly being depleted. The ministry said that it had sought to extract lithium from seawater over the past years and succeeded in securing related core technologies in May.

In 2008, South Korea imported around 11,000 tons of lithium batteries and other related products worth about 660 billion won to meet local demand, according to the ministry.

The global competition for securing the third element has become particularly severe in recent years, as experts forecast 4.1 million tons of lithium deposits will dry up in 10 years, the Land Ministry said. The worse news is that three-quarters of the world’s lithium is beneath Chile and half of the ramainder is in China, which makes Korea vulnerable to access to lithium mining.

To secure Korea’s own lithium supply, the Land Ministry and KIGAM have been jointly working on extracting the third element from sea water since 2000 as a national project.

In May 2009, they succeeded in extracting lithium from sea water and the Korean technology is 30 percent more energy efficient than that of Japan, the ministry said.

With the innovative technology, the KIGAM and POSCO will make a pilot plant model in 2010, develop a core production line for a lithium extraction plant in 2011-2012 and build a commercial lithium extraction plant in 2013-2014, it added.

If the plan goes as scheduled, the commercialized plant will be able to annually produce 20,000-100,000 tons of commercially-applicable lithium carbonate from 2015, the government and POSCO said.

"The plant will be constructed near the sea or in the sea of Korea but we haven’t decided where to build it yet. There will be many trials and errors," POSCO spokesman Lee Yong-sop said.

There hasn’t been lithium shortage to date, but a stable supply will be very important once the demand for electric cars surges. It will be good news both for electric car makers and rechargeable battery suppliers

Korea imports all of its lithium, with imports of lithium carbonate reaching 5,000 tons in 2008, according to the Land Ministry.

An annual production of 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate will be large enough to replace imports for Korea and additionally export up to $1 billion worth lithium carbonate a year, the ministry said.