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Battery farming

What can 'the white gold' ultimately bring Bolivia? The market is rapidly growing. Countries all over the world ? including China and Germany ? are proclaiming their ?no-more-diesel-cars? policies on regular basis. New models of e-cars are jumping out of the mainstream magazines. Does that mean Bolivia is entering the scrum at an ideal time?

 

A Bolivian miner looks out across Salar de Uyuni. The salt flat is estimated to be home to up to 17 percent of the world’s lithium reserves

“I’ve been following the lithium chain since the start of the modern lithium rush in 2016. There were lots of lithium mines in the world in the ’80s, particularly in the US where lithium was stockpiled for use in nuclear weapons, but they were mostly closed down as the stockpiles were sold off after the cold war and the price of lithium fell. However, the move towards electric cars and the desire to clean up the air in our cities has seen lithium come back in a big way.

“The early electric cars used lead batteries, but lithium batteries are lighter and charge faster so for powering vehicles they are better in nearly every way; there’s nothing else that comes close at the moment. But the electric car industry needs a lot of lithium – a large smartphone has about two grams of lithium in it, while there’s an estimated 63 kilograms in an electric car. This new demand saw the price of lithium double between 2016 and 2018. Suddenly Bolivia, which has over half of the known remaining reserves of lithium – an estimated 16 million tonnes – found itself at the centre of this new world.”

Salt miners at work in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Locals have found themselves competing for water with the lithium plants in a desert where there is little to no rain between April and September

“There are a number of different ways of getting lithium out of the ground, and the process they use in Bolivia isn’t really mining at all. Most of the lithium is contained in a mineral-rich brine around ten metres beneath Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat, in the remote south of the country. Workers drill though the crust until they hit a reserve that is high in lithium, which they then pump into shallow reservoirs where it is left for months at a time for the water to evaporate. This leaves behind a brown sludge containing a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts, which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and the process begins again. It can take up to 18 months before the mixture has been distilled enough to extract the lithium carbonate.

“The process destroys the pristine condition of the salt flats, one of Bolivia’s great national treasures. But the biggest impact of lithium exploitation in Bolivia has been on the local communities, which have traditionally depended on local quinoa farming and salt mining. Lithium processing uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne produced – and to supply it the government has started diverting water away from neighbouring villages and towns into the new lithium plants. All mining has an environmental impact, even if it ultimately leads to green technology.”

Vehicle tracks run across the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni

Miguel Parra, head of production at Comibol’s Llipi lithium plant, shovels “white gold”

“President Evo Morales of Bolivia said that Bolivia, Latin America’s poorest nation, could become ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium’, with the mineral mining bringing in a new era of wealth like oil did to the Middle Eastern country. But this won’t be straightforward.

“The process used in Bolivia takes time, and can’t be scaled up quickly in response to new demand. Faster processes are being developed and new mines opened in other countries, including Chile, which is currently producing 100 times as much lithium as Bolivia. Morales has been anxious not to allow international companies to come in and dominate the industry, with all lithium exploration, prospecting and mine development in the country run solely by state-owned mining company Comibol. This changed recently when Bolivia signed exploitation contracts with German and Chinese companies which should see production increase considerably.

“Unlike oil, lithium can be reused and recycled. Less than two percent of lithium batteries are currently recycled, but if this changes we could see the price of lithium go down as a result. However, even while the prices are high, I didn’t see many people in the local area around Salar de Uyuni benefiting from the resources below the surface. The process does not require a lot of labour so the new plants aren’t generating a lot of employment. The lithium has been extracted for years and I haven’t seen anything significant coming back to the local community.”

A worker looks out over the Llipilithium plant

Lithium evaporation pools in the middle of the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni

“While Bolivia has the raw materials, China totally dominates the world of lithium batteries. If you want to get batteries you pretty much have to go through a Chinese company. Even Panasonic, the Japanese company that provides batteries for Tesla, outsources to China.

“I visited the main factory of Soundon New Energy, one of China’s largest battery manufacturers, on the outskirts of the polluted city of Xiangtan in Hunan province. I expected it to be a sweatshop, full of manual workers, but it wasn’t like that at all – it was like looking into the future. Everything is automated, there are robots moving around with cameras and sensors directing them so they don’t bump into each other. I think the four people I photographed [see left] assembling parts were the only people in the entire factory who weren’t working behind a computer.

“Europe and America are way behind when it comes to this technology. China needs to take action or it will choke to death on pollution and the government is forcing environmental measures through. To register a non-electric car in Beijing you need to enter a lottery. If you don’t get it you will have to go without a vehicle for a year before you can try again, so people will have to make the move to electric.

“There are around 200 companies in China that only produce electric vehicles – in the West there is only one really established company: Tesla. And it’s not just cars – China is making electric trucks, electric buses, electric mopeds, electric tractors, everything. To fuel it they need more and more lithium and they are tying up sources all over the world: Bolivia, Chile, countries across Africa – even the US. I spoke to somebody in the States who was prospecting for lithium. I asked him who he would sell it to if he found it and he was certain it would be a Chinese company, because they paid the most. This was 300 kilometres from the Tesla factory.

“At the moment there is plenty of lithium to go around. But when electric cars really take off across the world, which could be in a couple of years, then there will be a bottleneck and I think there’s the potential for conflict and trade wars.

“Despite the disruption I have seen lithium mining cause, I am not an electric car sceptic. If you can power cars with renewable energy, then they have to be better for the environment than burning oil. To produce an electric car you have to use a lot more metals such as copper and lithium than a traditional combustion engine, but once it is on the road it is much more efficient, there’s less to break down and those materials can be reused or recycled afterwards. It is the future – but I don’t think anyone predicted we would get there so quickly.”

The production line at lithium ion battery company Soundon New Energy’s factory on the outskirts of Xiangtan, China

Tesla Model 3 cars in Norway, February 2019. During March 2019, 58 percent of all new cars sold in the country were fully electric

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