The Battle Over Bolivia’s Lithium and the Future of Energy



Salt Piles at the Salar de Uyuni

In the brine under a crust of blindingly white salt in Uyuni, Bolivia, lies nearly 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Best known as a tourist attraction, the Salar is gaining fame as batteries made with this scarce element catch the attention of governments and auto-makers world wide. While on the campaign trail, President Obama promised that by 2015, there would be 1 million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on US roads, and, once in office, he allocated billions of economic stimulus package dollars toward battery technology and manufacturing.

In Bolivia, leftist president Evo Morales wants a state-run lithium refining and battery manufacturing industry to generate funds for health, education and poverty alleviation programs in South America’s most poverty stricken country.

As environmental and nationalist rhetoric promise big changes and bigger money for manufacturers and governments, questions still remain about the environmental effects lithium refining could have on Bolivia’s farming and tourist industry, and the viability of lithium batteries as an energy solution for the auto industry.

A Superlative Element

Lithium is the lightest known metal. At half the density of water, pure lithium has the disconcerting weight of a chunk of pine wood when held in the hand. You can cut it with a knife, but its white metallic luster tarnishes to an ashy charcoal almost immediately upon contact with oxygen. It floats in oil, burns with a bright crimson flame, and ignites in water. Modern society has used lithium in a variety of ways, ranging from mood stabilizing drugs, to the creation of the first human-made nuclear reaction. It is also used in glass, ceramics, light metal for aircrafts and, most importantly, batteries.

At an elemental level, lithium atom’s atomic radius is smaller, and in turn metallic lithium is more electro-negative, and boils at a lower temperature than any other metal. All these qualities make lithium ion batteries (LiIon) weigh less, take up less space, and last longer than alkaline batteries. Currently, LiIon batteries are making the more than 2 billion cell phones in the world light and small enough to slip in the pockets of their users. In addition, your computers, mp3 players and power tools are most likely powering up with a little bit of South American or Tibetan reserves. At the moment, nickel batteries are still less expensive than LiIon models, but if lithium supplies increase, then the cost could go down.

Currently the largest lithium reserves and producers are in Chile, Argentina and Tibet. Most refineries are dedicated solely to lithium, and discard other minerals. Since 2004, world production of lithium, especially in Chile, has skyrocketed. Argentina also has aggressive plans to expand existing plants and build new ones. Yearly production of lithium carbonate, the most easily obtained form, varies from 16 to 25 tons per year, and currently covers demand.

"Our grandparents lived from the salt. Now it’s our turn"

The silver and tin mining city of Potosí, Bolivia – in the 1600’s richer and larger than Paris – is now the capital of the poorest province in the poorest country in South America. 150 miles of dirt roads to the west, distant islands and volcanoes float over the blindingly white plain of the salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. The biggest in the world, the Salar is, according to scientists, the remains of a vast inland sea, or according to legend, the dried traces of breast milk and tears of a disconsolate goddess searching for her lost child. The light refracted by the crystallized salt makes it the last place on earth visible to the naked eye from space.

The Salar has been a resource for the people of the Land of the Lípez, as it is known, since time immemorial. Juan Colque works out of his house in the town of Colchani, selling salt sculptures of llamas, bowls, dice games and other shapes to the more than 60 thousand tourists who pass by on their way to see the salt flats every year. Other residents rake the salt into piles to dry, and then shovel it into trucks to be processed in the valleys. In this "salt town" on the banks of the Salar, most houses and buildings are made of bricks of the crystallized mineral. "I’ve worked as a tour guide, I know the Salar like my hand," says Colque, "I’ll work in lithium, too, if that starts. You have to do anything you can. People live day to day here."

The quiet city of Uyuni is the biggest metropolis for hours. In the winter, high season for tourists, the glare of the sun bakes the plains until night fall, when frigid winds take over. In the summer, rains swell rivers that tear up the dirt roads and rickety train tracks connecting Uyuni with the rest of the country. In the mayor’s office, advisor Luis Ramirez Ríos says that he wants lithium profits to "go toward improving the quality of life in this area abandoned by the state and national government."

Currently, the largest industry in the area is tourism. The Uyuni tourist information office is in the base of a miniature Big Ben clock in the center of town. There, Omar Perez says that tourism is currently growing 14.95 % each year, and there are currently 74 tour operators. Perez acknowledges the possible benefits of lithium exploitation, but is wary of grandiose promises. "We, the people of Uyuni, are completely in agreement that it is economically very important. They say that all the jobs and materials will benefit people here," he says, and shrugs "but ask anyone in the street and they are going to say ‘nothing’s going on with Lithium.’"

Out on the edge of town, a sign on the gate of the FRUTCAS (Southern High Plains Regional Federation of Workers and Peasants) office reads "No Lithium Vacancies Left," but local men wait hopefully in the courtyard for work. Executive Secretary Francisco Quisbert has long seen lithium as a solution to lift his union members out of poverty, but only if it is run "100% by the state and the majority of the profits stay in the region, because if a transnational company comes, they’ll take all of the profits, and on top of taking everything, they don’t’ reinvest in the country." A decade ago, Quisbert helped organize successful protests against the government’s plans to sell the reserves to The American Lithium Corporation. In 2005, former coca leader Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia with a vast mandate to nationalize the extraction of natural resources and create a new constitution with the participation of social movements. One of Morales’ first acts as president was a highly theatrical occupation of a gas refinery, which is now partially nationalized.

In addition, creating a state run and owned lithium refinery is an act of "scientific decolonization" to Chemist and Director of Universities Pedro Crespo Avizuri, who has studied the Salar and its minerals since the 1980’s.

The Eyes of Capitalism

Former Mining Minister Mariobo Moreno says that the government must resist globalizing "instruments like transnational corporations and economic and international political pressure."

"The fact that the New York Times published that half of the lithium in the world is in Bolivia doesn’t raise any eyebrows in the country because it’s nothing new," writes Moreno, "but in the rest of the world, it puts all the eyes of capitalism on Bolivia."

And indeed they are. International press in the past year reacted to Morales’ assertions that lithium refining and battery production will be a state-run industry with ‘lithocracy’-phobic headlines. Simon Romero of the New York Times ("Bolivia: The Saudi Arabia of Lithium?" and "Nationalism Threatens Bolivian Lithium Supplies") frets that that sections of the new constitution "could give Indians control over the natural resources in their territory, strengthening their ability to win concessions from the authorities and private companies, or even block mining projects." However, a report prepared by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) points out that mineral-rich and infrastructure-poor Bolivia could certainly learn much about managing valuable resources from the experience of OPEC countries.

Piloting the Future of Bolivia

In a highly publicized ceremony, Morales laid a cornerstone for a lithium refinery pilot plant at the delta of the Rio Grande de Lípez in May, 2008. To Marcelo Castro, the director of construction of a pilot lithium refinery, President Morales is "not just an indigenous president, but a recuperation of our morals."

According to the Bolivian research organization CEDIB, the official plan for the process is to extract the brine from a southeastern area of the Salar and transport it through a duct to solid ground. 14,000 square meters of solar evaporation pools will allow the adequate concentration of the commercial salts of the brine. When running, the pilot plant will employ 55 workers and produce some 40 tons of lithium carbonate per month. The official date given for the opening of the plant is January of 2010.

The report mentions the productions of other minerals in the brine, including potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, boric acid and magnesium chloride. However, when I ask him about the production capacity of the plant, Castro is very insistent that there are many hurdles to overcome just in order to be able to begin studying the process of extraction itself, let alone begin exporting. But Castro sees long-term future benefits for Bolivia in the project.

Such a long-term perspective is needed, too, because neither the pilot plant, nor the larger industrial plant projected to follow, address the issue of processing the lithium carbonate into the metallic lithium needed for batteries. Both projects could still allow for a cheap exportation of lithium carbonate to international corporations who could process and sell lithium for a large profit to themselves, which many would like to do. Earlier this spring Morales declared that Bolivia will not sell crude lithium carbonate for international battery manufacturers to reap the benefit from, and that LiIon batteries and even cars should be manufactured in Bolivia. French company Bollore didn’t balk at the suggestion, but this news doesn’t necessarily mean action. Jindal of India has been working on plans to extract iron in Bolivia for several years, and the process is still bogged down in paperwork.

A Nature Crazier than Fiction

In addition, a closer look at the nature of Lithium in Uyuni reveals other challenges before Castro and hopeful battery manufacturers.

In fact, according to Meridian Institute Research Consultants, several factors are working against the Salar de Uyuni on its quest to become the world’s largest manufacturer. Uyuni’s lithium epicenter is not only lower in quality that the current large producer in the Atacama, but the lithium reserves are also less concentrated, which means that more of the Salar will have to be mined. Moreover, the presence of magnesium in the brine complicates the refining process. Another complicating factor is that the evaporation rate in Uyuni is only 40% of the Atacama, which means refining will take more time, all factors that will make lithium extraction in Uyuni a much more difficult and lengthy process.

This means that the governments’ "intention to produce 1,000 tons of Lithium per month by from 2013," one and a half times the current production of the Salar de Atacama, which is the world’s largest Lithium producer, are "highly unlikely" due to the high concentrations of magnesium and the lower evaporation rate.

A Closed Circuit?

For the last 500 years, mining has caused irreversible environmental damage to Bolivian land and communities. In Uyuni, when I ask Francisco Quisbert about his concerns about the environmental ramifications of lithium exploitation, he has an immediate point of reference: past fights against water exportation and the San Cristobal mine, now Sumitomo. He bemoans the fact that peasants and activists were able to stop a plan to export the subterranean water to Chile at the rate of 6,000 liters per second, but have been unable to address the nearby mines usage of subterranean water at the rate of 40,000 cubic meters of water per day, which has dried several watersheds formerly used by peasants. However, Quisbert is much more interested in potential gains from lithium production than the potential costs.

Elizabeth Lopez of the Bolivian Environmental Defense League (FOBOMADE) is concerned by the lack of available water use and impact studies. She worries that exploitation of the Salar could cause lasting damages, but understands why local farmers are excited by the prospects. "When the people rejected LITHCOA and the water exportation, it was such a victory that they now feel that it is their right to exploit the Lithium reserves." The new government has also complicated the process. "It’s one thing when a foreign corporation comes, you can conduct a study, protest, complain to the government, but when the government itself is in charge, a government like this, which professes to have the greater good in mind, it’s a lot more complicated. Who do we complain to?"

Several concerns about the potential impacts of a plant have yet to be addressed by the government. While official sources call the process a "closed circuit," involving, says Marco Castro, taking the lithium out of the brine and "putting everything else back in," modern mining is rarely that simple, and Uyuni’s magnesium-rich lithium will require more refining than in other deposits. There is also the question of what effect disturbing or covering large areas of the Salar could have on local wildlife and climactic patterns. If, indeed, removing the lithium itself is a benign process, the government will need to pay close attention to processing plants. Plants at other reserves produce sulfur dioxide, which is produces potentially life-threatening effects after long periods of exposure.

The Emperors’ Battery-Powered Clothes

In the meantime, technological advances have promised to make LiIon batteries charge in seconds, and, on March 19, Obama took a photo-op at a Southern California electric-vehicle test facility to announce that $2 billion Department of Energy competitive grant program to motivate hybrid and electric car part and battery manufacturing in the US. "Show us that your idea or your company is best-suited to meet America’s challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it," he said.

However, like the ‘green energy’ promised by agrofuels, which actually result in a net energy loss, lithium ‘powered’ cars are another emperor’s new clothes of sustainable energy. Another key point that the buzz about lithium batteries doesn’t address is that LiIon batteries can only store energy; they cannot create it. So the question of where the great quantity of energy to power these electric cars and machines will come from remains. Unless the capture of wind, water and solar energy make concurrent technological leaps and bounds, future batteries made from "the Saudi Arabia of Lithium" will not only destroy a natural wonder of the world, but will still rely on the failing energy policies of today.

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April Howard teaches Latin American History at SUNY Plattsburgh and is a high school social studies teacher. She is also an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine reporting on activism and politics in Latin America. All photos by Howard. Email [email protected]

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