The government and the nation's top steelmaker POSCO said yesterday they would team up to build a plant to extract lithium from sea water.
Lithium is a key raw material for rechargeable batteries, which are used for powering hybrid and electric cars, mobile phones and laptops.
The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and POSCO will invest a combined 30 billion won ($25.8 million) over the next five years to help the Korea Institute for Geoscience and Mineral Resources build a plant to extract lithium from sea water by 2014, the ministry and POSCO said.
Land Minister Chung Jong-hwan, POSCO CEO Chung Joon-yang and KIGAM president Chang Ho-wan signed an agreement on the joint project in Seoul yesterday.
"POSCO will contribute to Korea's growth as a resources developer by commercializing the lithium extraction technology," POSCO CEO Chung Joon-yang said.
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. Ever worse is that three-quarters of the world's lithium is beneath Chile and half of the ramainder is in China, which makes Korea.
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," POSCO spokesman Lee Yong-sop said.
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.
"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 carmakers and rechargeable battery suppliers," said Jeff Kang, an analyst with Daeshin Securities.