Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lithium: In Bolivia, Untapped Bounty Meets Nationalism

Butch Cassidy: Kid, the next time I say, "Let's go someplace like Bolivia,"
let's go someplace like Bolivia.
- Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

From the New York Times:
In the rush to build the next generation of hybrid or electric cars, a sobering fact confronts both automakers and governments seeking to lower their reliance on foreign oil: almost half of the world’s lithium, the mineral needed to power the vehicles, is found here in Bolivia — a country that may not be willing to surrender it so easily.

Japanese and European companies are busily trying to strike deals to tap the resource, but a nationalist sentiment about the lithium is building quickly in the government of President Evo Morales, an ardent critic of the United States who has already nationalized Bolivia’s oil and natural gas industries.

For now, the government talks of closely controlling the lithium and keeping foreigners at bay. Adding to the pressure, indigenous groups here in the remote salt desert where the mineral lies are pushing for a share in the eventual bounty.

“We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” said Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.”...

...The United States Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and just 410,000 in the United States. Independent geologists estimate that Bolivia might have even more lithium at Uyuni and its other salt deserts, though high altitudes and the quality of the reserves could make access to the mineral difficult. While estimates vary widely, some geologists say electric-car manufacturers could draw on Bolivia’s lithium reserves for decades to come...MORE
HT: Environmental Capital
For the last three years China has been wooing Mr. Morales:

Jan. 2006-
Latin America Drifts East -- Evo Morales Stakes Bolivia's Future on China
Chinese president calls for stronger China-Bolivia links

Bolivia seeks Chinese investment

April 2007-
China, Bolivia vow to enhance military exchanges

Jan. 2008-
China-Bolivia Culture Week kicks off in La Paz

And so on. China isn't leaving everything in Evo's hands though.
One of the reasons China has done the nasty on Tibet is lithium:
It Is Expected That China's Lithium Carbonate Output Will Amount to 45,000 Tons and...
Tibet is No.1 lithium producer in the world
The karma of lithium ion batteries: how Tibet plays a role in green car technology

Some of our prior posts on Bolivian lithium:

Lithium-Ion Batteries and Bolivian Politics
Electric Vehicles-Lithium Supplies and Crucifixion in Bolivia
Mining lithium from geothermal 'lemonade'. And: Batteries That Don't Blow Up