Bolivia, with huge untapped reserves, gears up for soaring lithium demand
Road to rich
Bolivia, among the poorest countries in South America, sits on one of the world's largest lithium reserves, at the Salar de Uyuni — or Uyuni Salt Flats — ready to take full advantage in the coming age of the electric car.
Future looks positive
That will change when its Llipi plant comes online in 2020.
The factory, guarded by the army because of the metal's value, will have an annual production capacity of 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate, project manager Marco Antonio Condoretty said.
Morales, a leftist and former coca farmer, is counting on lithium to serve as the economic engine that lifts his country out of poverty.
YLB teamed up last year with German company ACI Systems to help develop the Uyuni complex.
It's part of a plan to form strategic partnerships that "bring their technology and guarantee outlets," said Condoretty.
The joint venture will manufacture electric-vehicle batteries in Bolivia for the growing European market.
Add China to the picture
Bolivia said earlier this year that Uyuni alone likely has at least 21 million metric tons of lithium, more than double previous estimates.
Until now, the Salar de Uyuni has been a major tourist attraction, and environmentalists have raised concerns about the landscape being irreparably altered by exploiting the lithium deposits underneath.
But Condoretty insisted that lithium exploitation would use "clean technologies" and affect only about three percent of the salt flat.
China's appetite for lithium
With its voracious appetite for lithium, the Asian giant has positioned itself at the center of the world's main deposits of the metal.
By 2025, China will need 800,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles.
China's Tianqui Lithium Corp. took a 24 percent stake in Chilean producer SQM last December, placing itself inside the "Lithium Triangle," which has 80 percent of the globe's known deposits.
Lithium production worldwide
Australia is the world's biggest producer, with 51,000 tons annually, followed by Chile with 16,000 tons, China with 8,000 and Argentina with 6,200.
As recently as 2016, Bolivia produced only some 20 tons of lithium carbonate, according to the Lithium Today website.