A Grey Goldmine: Recent Developments in Lithium Extraction in Bolivia and Alternative Energy Projects

According to Bolivian President Evo Morales, lithium is not only important to his country’s economic future but is “the hope of humanity,” as the lightweight metal efficiently stores energy capable of powering the eco-friendly cars of the future. Bolivia’s lithium reserves have made headlines in the past and once again currently. The country holds a total of 5.4 million tons of lithium, which is nearly half of the world’s known supply. The Bolivian government now appears to be moving ahead with increasingly concrete plans for extraction and production of the metal. Experts from around the globe who recently gathered in Bolivia discussed new scientific findings and the possibilities herein contained. Meanwhile, the U.S. and many other nations are preparing to meet in Copenhagen this December to discuss climate change and alternative energy policies. In order to understand recent developments in Bolivia’s lithium policy, it is necessary to examine new advancements in lithium technology, Morales’ overall policy of nationalization, alternative energy plans in the U.S. and Spain, and some of the concerns that have been raised.

New Lithium Technologies

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), one quarter of the lithium mined last year was used solely for lithium batteries, which operate portable electronic devices. The already rapidly increasing demand for lithium, the world’s lightest metal, which has a prodigious capacity for storing energy, is expected to rise dramatically as demand for electric cars, an alternative to gas-powered vehicles, are mass-produced and take to the roads. Currently, lithium-ion batteries have become the industry’s standard as they boast a high weight-to-energy ratio, lack of memory effect (batteries’ decreasing ability to hold charge over time) and a slow-self discharge. Engineers, however, have been working to improve battery technology and thus increase the range of electric cars. Such advancements would enhance the marketability of these vehicles and allow electric car producers to attract more customers, thus establishing a more substantial consumer base for lithium products. An article in the New York Times this September suggested that lithium-air batteries may hold the key to the future of electric cars.

IBM recently announced an ambitious project to develop lithium-air batteries, which hold considerably more charge than their lithium-ion cohorts, both for transportation and for powering the national energy grid. The company claims that compared with the 585 watt-hours output of the standard lithium-ion batteries, lithium-air batteries could produce a considerable 5,000 watt-hours. IBM has invested in the development of this lithium-air technology, believing that these batteries, with their ability to hold 10 times more energy than other models, could revolutionize the transportation industry. These scientists, however, are guardedly optimistic due to the fact that lithium metal is highly volatile and explodes when exposed to water. Experts must create a mechanism that excludes moisture from the air and ensures that other effective security measures are in place to protect electric car owners. While IBM is banking on tomorrow’s battery technology, the majority of companies are focusing on producing the less volatile, but also less efficient, lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles for immediate sale. It remains to be seen whether or not IBM will successfully develop this new lithium technology; however, improvements in lithium technology will undoubtedly increase the demand for electric vehicles which will require a large amount of lithium in the next few years. Bolivia, a country with vast lithium resources, is currently working to assess, produce, and manufacture lithium products that correspond with the rising global demand for clean energy vehicles.

Tapping into Bolivia’s Vast Reserves

Bolivia’s rich lands once yielded immense amounts of silver, tin and other mineral wealth, and now boast a vast supply of lithium, known as the “grey gold.” According to the USGS, Bolivia’s countryside holds nearly half of the world’s known lithium deposits, or a total of 5.4 million tons of the valuable metal. However, unlike neighboring Chile and Argentina, two countries that also have significant deposits of the metal, Bolivia has yet to contribute to the supply of the global market. In 2008, Chile led the world in lithium production with an output of 12,000 tons while Argentina presently supplies 3,200 tons annually. Between 2004 and 2007, the United States imported 61 percent of its lithium from Chile and 36 percent from Argentina. With a limited domestic reserve of only 760,000 tons of identified lithium reserves, the U.S. must turn to these South American countries for its supply. In an effort to capitalize on what is and will continue to be a rising demand for the lightweight metal, the Bolivian government has implemented a series of prospecting initiatives and has entertained potential investors in recent months.

Recent Developments

At the end of October, scientists and academics from around the world gathered in La Paz for the “Inaugural International Science and Technology Forum for the Industrialization of Lithium and Evaporative Resources.” Experts from Canada, China, South Korea, France, Russia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Spain met with Bolivian scientists and policy makers to discuss findings and applications for Bolivian lithium. Earlier in the month, Bolivian officials reported that the construction of a pilot lithium extraction plant, which began in April 2008, is 75 percent complete and on schedule to be finished by the end of the year. Bolivian Minister of Mining Luis Alberto Echazu believes the facility will be able to produce 480 tons of lithium carbonate annually. Producing lithium carbonate, even on a relatively small scale, would lend more credibility to the government’s grand plans for Bolivia to become a global supplier of lithium. The forum provided an international stage where the Bolivian government could voice its intention to develop and implement significant projects in the next few years.

President Morales used the lithium summit as a venue to present his three-step plan for developing the facilities necessary to extract a significant amount of the resource, produce lithium carbonate, and manufacture lithium batteries. Morales’ first step, which has already begun, involves the expert assessment of the quality of Uyuni’s lithium deposit. While Bolivia has a vast amount of lithium, some experts are concerned about the quality of the resource. Foreign companies, including Bollore (France), Kores (South Korea), and Mitsubishi and Sumitomo (Japan) have provided their assessment services free of charge in the hopes that the government will consider these companies first when drafting specifications for dispensing lithium carbonate.

The second phase of the government’s plan implements facilities to produce lithium carbonate, the refined lithium compound that stores energy in batteries, using the raw lithium extracted from the Uyuni salt flats. Officials recently announced that Bolivia would invest between $400 and $500 million in a lithium refining facility, the first of its kind in the country. The projected date of completion for the project is 2014. Upon completion, Echazu estimates that the plant would be able to produce 30,000 tons of lithium carbonate, roughly one-third of the current world supply. An official representing the national mining corporation (COMIBOL) also announced that Bolivian scientists had discovered their own formula for producing high-quality lithium carbonate. This finding would allow Bolivia to proceed with lithium production without relying on the expertise of outside companies for the second stage. If all goes according to the government’s plan, this lithium refining plant would make Bolivia an attractive prospect for trade partnerships with foreign countries anxious to decrease reliance on gas-powered vehicles.

The final goal of the Morales administration would be the production of lithium batteries on Bolivian soil. The government hopes that Bolivia, rather than becoming an exporter of raw lithium or lithium carbonate, can also install the integrated facilities necessary to produce lithium batteries. If successful, the government would maintain control over the entire process from extraction to lithium carbonate production and, finally, the fabrication of lithium batteries. Robert Carvajal, Bolivia’s Vice Minister of Science and Technology, projected that the facilities and infrastructure for producing lithium batteries will be installed and operational by 2018. While Bolivia plans to execute the first two phases of lithium production without foreign participation, the government admits that the final stage will require some outside investment. Reports from local newspapers in La Paz and Potosí also report that an automobile manufacturer has verbally expressed interest in building an electric car factory in Bolivia, but has yet to submit a written proposal. Morales’ plan, despite relying on foreign investors for the final stage, reiterates the policy that Bolivia’s natural resources should be state-owned and controlled.

Morales Intends to Avoid Plundering of Bolivian Riches

President Evo Morales’ stated mission continues to be that lithium in Bolivia should be controlled by the state and used to benefit Bolivians, not foreign companies. In response to outside interest in exploiting Bolivia’s lithium reserves, Morales firmly declares that Bolivia will not export the metal as a raw material and has required that all companies interested in mining lithium must also install battery plants on Bolivian soil. When these companies failed to make offers in line with this policy, La Paz decided to develop the country’s capacity to utilize lithium without outside investment. In this manner, Morales hopes that lithium extraction and production will generate job opportunities so that Bolivians, rather than foreign companies and investors, would ultimately be the prime beneficiaries of this natural resource. Morales’ nationalization policies stem from his desire to protect the nation from yet another pillaging of the natural resources, as that perpetrated by Europeans beginning in the sixteenth century, who ravaged the landscape and stole the lives of millions of Bolivians.

Morales’ determination to preclude rapacious forms of foreign investment is bolstered by recent news from the Potosí region. After 500 years of foreign mining in Bolivia, Cerro Rico, the famous World Heritage site in Potosí, is on the verge of collapse. On October 20, the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (COMIBOL), deeply concerned about the drastically weakened physical structure of the mountain, issued a 6-month ban on silver mining in the upper tier of Cerro Rico. Acknowledging the damage caused by silver extraction, Morales has stated that the extraction of lithium “cannot be another Cerro Rico.” Throughout the colonial and post-colonial mining era in Potosí, wealthy Europeans and local hidalgos stuffed their pockets while employment in the mines only brought heartbreak and loss of life for millions of impoverished Bolivians over the centuries. In the 1800s, foreign companies had all but depleted Cerro Rico’s rich endowment before turning from silver to the extraction of tin. Nevertheless, the mining of both tin and silver has continued to this day, with miners effectively signing away at least their health, if not their lives, as they enter the mines for income they desperately need.

Just as thousands of Europeans poured into the country throughout the 15th and 16th centuries to make their fortunes in silver, Bolivia’s rich lithium resources have again inspired international interest. While Potosí represented immense wealth and power for Europeans, Cerro Rico only meant misery and pain for humble Bolivians. Some reports indicate that the mines have cost millions of miners’ their lives over the years, devastating the existences of the women and children who are left behind. Only ten years after entering mines, these workers die of asphyxiation resulting from their inhalation of poisonous dust on a daily basis. The exacting toll of this work on the miners and their families can make one understand the president’s intention to prevent a new separation of foreign companies from plundering the countryside yet again. While Bolivia outlines plans for the future of its people, and hopes to avert the mistakes that have happened throughout the nation’s history, the U.S. and other developed countries outline alternative energy plans in an attempt to combat climate change which inevitably will rely on an increased utilization of lithium.

Bold Alternative Energy Plans

Alternative energy plans being surveyed in the U.S. will drive demand for electric vehicles and the lithium batteries to power these gas-independent cars. Obama and his Democratic supporters are racing to pass environmentally progressive legislation before U.S. leaders join representatives from 170 countries for next month’s Copenhagen Climate Conference. Currently, discussions regarding the Obama administration’s climate change bill are heating up. According to the bill’s summary, The Clean Energy Jobs and Power Act “reduces our oil consumption and increases our energy independence through bold new energy efficiency standards, increases incentives for electric and other clean vehicles, and is an investment in public transportation .” During his campaign and in the early days of his presidency, President Obama declared that the U.S. could have 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. The Obama administration looks to combat the recession through the creation of “green jobs” such as the manufacturing of alternative energy products, like electric vehicles.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allots $61.3 billion for improvements in the energy sector. Among the concessions are a $2 billion grant to fund the development of lithium battery technology, $400 million for electric vehicle technologies, and $300 million to purchase electric cars for the government fleet. These government investments demonstrate the Obama administration’s commitment to electric vehicle use and the hope that economic recovery can be partially accomplished by generating “green” jobs. According to President Obama, the Recovery Act is the “largest investment in clean energy in history, not just to help end this recession, but to lay a new foundation for lasting prosperity.”

The President recently addressed students at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) where he stressed the importance of clean energy for America saying that the U.S. is now engaged in “peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century .” He continued on to say that “the nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy.” The U.S. must import lithium carbonate and the batteries to power these green fleets. For this reason, Bolivia must move quickly and purposefully to accomplish the goals set at the Lithium Forum; however, unease about Bolivia’s ability to carry out the necessary steps based on its technical capacity to do so, and its concerns regarding the quality of its lithium, and recent news regarding a massive lithium discovery in Mexico could quickly thwart the momentum Bolivia has generated up to this point.

Is Bolivia Ready?

While many in Bolivia are optimistic about the country’s ability to fulfill the president’s goals for lithium production, reservations remain about the country’s infrastructure, ability to execute facility construction, and the quality of its lithium deposit. Beltran responded to concerns about infrastructure preparedness by outlining the government’s program to spend $500 million to build roads, install a natural gas pipeline, and create a water and power system. Another issue is the timely construction of facilities. While the government pledges to have these plants finished on time, any number of disruptions could derail the construction timeline. Of particular concern could be work stoppages arising from Morales’ opposition or dissatisfied workers. Finally, experts have also questioned the quality of the lithium deposit in Uyuni and feasibility of success. Scientists are concerned that the high amounts of magnesium found in the deposit could make extraction efforts costly . In addition, seasonal flooding of the salt flats could delay the necessary evaporative process. While the Bolivian government addresses these concerns, news from Mexico indicates that Bolivia must move quickly if it is to take advantage of its lithium wealth.

The Mexican Threat

Mexico’s recent finds place an enormous amount of pressure on the Bolivian government to collaborate with foreign investors for fear that these companies will move to hospitable countries with more relaxed terms of development. On October 9, the mining company Pierro Sutti reported that a massive lithium deposit covering over 40,000 hectares of land had been discovered in the San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas states of Northern Mexico . Prior to the announcement, Mexico appeared to be totally unaware of any lithium deposits, making it dependent on imports from Chile and Argentina. U.S. and Canadian officials in Mexico estimate that the deposit could yield over 800,000 tons of lithium. The company’s president, Martin Sutti plans to build a pilot plant that he claims has the potential to produce 10,000 to 12,000 tons of lithium a year. This figure far exceeds the production prediction envisaged by Bolivia’s pilot plan and, while this information is preliminary, the discovery could position Mexico, to join the ranks of Chile and Argentina, as well as Bolivia, in the production of lithium.

Improved Relations

In recent months, Bolivia has notably improved relations with Spain and the United States. Both countries have developed alternative energy goals which, given Bolivia’s successful implementation of its production strategy for lithium, will potentially rely on lithium products from Uyuni. Spain’s Proyecto Movele, even more aggressive than the U.S.’s plan, intends to put one million electric cars on Spanish streets by the end of 2012. After a much-publicized inaugural visit to Spain in September, Morales signed an important agreement with Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero that ultimately canceled $77.4 million or 60 percent, of Bolivia’s debt to Spain . Spain will invest the remaining 40 percent in education and development programs for Bolivia. The visit also secured a $1.6 billion investment from REPSOL, Spain’s state oil company, aimed at boosting Bolivia’s natural gas production. Morales nationalized this sector of the energy department, taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s book, and subsequently raised taxes on foreign companies.

Bolivia and the U.S. are also moving to restore relations that disintegrated in 2008, with President Morales expelling the American Ambassador for allegedly supporting the opposition party. Representatives from both governments must address their contending issues such as the coca trade, much of which Morales only recently admitted is being grown illegally processed into cocaine, as well as Bolivia’s relationship with hot-button countries like Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. The rekindling of ties between these two countries comes conveniently at a time when the U.S. is set to become a huge consumer base for electric vehicles charged by lithium batteries.

Looking Forward

While Morales stands behind his nationalization policy, there is no guarantee that Bolivia can install lithium facilities or much-needed infrastructure in a timely manner without outside assistance such as foreign investment. In terms of lithium extraction, neighboring Chile and Argentina already have the capacity to produce and export the raw material. And, as Mexico has discovered an immense lithium deposit, Bolivia is in a race to industrialize as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of what will soon be a booming market. In addition, Bolivia is also competing with Asian companies in Japan and China, which easily have the capital necessary to make large investments in battery technology and manufacture. While Bolivia looks to capitalize on its natural resources without the aid of foreign partners, it remains to be seen whether the country can implement the necessary reforms to do so.

Bolivians go to the polls for the upcoming presidential elections on December 6. Currently, Morales commands a 52 percent majority while his nearest competitor rallied only 18 percent in a November 15th poll . These statistics have been unreliable in the past but it appears almost certain that Morales will return to lead the Bolivian government for the next 5 years. The President has received a lot of attention lately as discussions about lithium production have placed Bolivia into the international spotlight. Morales remains popular among the rural poor as this segment of the population has been especially devastated by past injustices fostered by foreign companies. They therefore show great enthusiasm for the president’s effort to further state control over natural resources. Opposition from the media luna, the four eastern provinces of Bolivia, continues with many expressing their dissatisfaction with the president. Results of the aforementioned poll cited above, however, show that Morales has gained support in two media luna provinces, Tarija and Beni; Pando and Santa Cruz, however, remain determinedly opposed to the President. Once re-elected, Morales must work on his domestic agenda as well as continue to evaluate the success of his nationalization policy and to diversify the country’s still struggling economy.