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Korea starts extracting lithium from sea

Korea has completed the construction of its first offshore plant to extract lithium from seawater in a bid to supply spiraling demand for the scarce metal in the automobile and electronics industries.

The “Seawater Lithium Research Center” located in Gangneung in the country’s east entered test-production and will develop technology to churn out 30 tons of high-purity lithium carbonate annually starting 2014, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said Thursday.

“The pilot project is aimed at leading the global market by boosting lithium carbonate output to 100,000 tons by 2020, 80 percent of which to be exported,” minister Kwon Do-youp said.

The project coincides with the government’s efforts to curb heavy reliance on imports and hedge against skyrocketing prices of the metal used to power items ranging from mobile phones to electric cars.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy wants to jack up its combined self-sufficiency rate for “national strategic resources” including lithium and rare earths to 10 percent this year from 5.5 percent last year.

Korea imports all of its lithium needs, which nearly doubled from 5,200 tons in 2008 to the current 11,000 tons, worth $600 million.

Prices, meanwhile, nearly doubled to $4.54 per kilogram as of May compared with 2003, government data showed.

In 2009, Korea became the second country to secure technology to absorb lithium dissolved in seawater and separate it following Japan.

The ministry has been funding 30 billion won ($28.4 million) together with POSCO since last year to set up the institution and conduct research.

It said only 4.1 million tons of lithium remains worldwide in economically feasible forms. Its global output stood at a mere 18,000 tons in 2009, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Chile has the largest deposits, yielding about 12,000 tons a year. Australia, China and Argentina followed with 6,900 tons, 3,500 tons and 3,200 tons each.

By Shin Hyon-hee (