Ready or Not

Towers mark the entrance to a lithium extraction site in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. (Daniel Hofer, danielhofer.com)

Towers mark the entrance to a lithium extraction site in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. (Daniel Hofer, danielhofer.com)

In 1944 H. C. Meyer, then president of the Foote Mineral Company, wrote an editorial titled “The Alchemy of the Useless.” He asked, “How often have we seen the useless become useful, the luxury of today become the necessity of tomorrow?” Lithium, the third element on the periodic table and the lightest metal, is a prime example of an answer to this question. It evolved from a relatively useless curiosity to an indispensable component of everyday items like pharmaceuticals and laptop batteries. 

Lithium’s use in rechargeable batteries is of particular note, not only for electronics producers and consumers but also for countries with significant deposits of lithium. The fairly rapid advance of lithium-battery technology for electric cars and its potential boom in the next five years has created a sense of urgency in Bolivia, a land-locked country in South America that holds the world’s largest reserves of lithium. (Chile sits close behind.) If Bolivia does not act quickly, it may miss the proverbial train, although a lithium boom also carries economic, political, and environmental impacts. 

Salar de Uyuni, the most expansive salt flat in the world, is located in southern Bolivia, in the Andes near the border with Chile. Within the flat lies the largest lithium brine deposit in the world. Such a deposit requires solution mining, which uses a series of large evaporation pools to concentrate the contents of the brine, precipitating various components of the brine at each stage. The product is a “liquor” rich in lithium that is reacted with sodium carbonate and quicklime to produce a high-purity lithium carbonate. 

In 2007 a regional farmers’ union petitioned the newly elected government of Evo Morales to develop a homegrown lithium industry in the region. Fifteen years earlier the union had voiced strong opposition to awarding a mining concession to the American Lithium Corporation, which it viewed as economically unfavorable for Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni region. The 2007 petition stipulated that the initial exploration and extraction technology be developed and controlled solely by the Bolivian state. 

According to officials and the farm union’s leaders, state control of lithium production would be a step toward increasing Bolivian control over the country’s vast mineral resources. This is particularly significant to Bolivians given 500 years of external control over the country’s mineral wealth—first by such colonial powers as Spain and later by transnational corporations—from which Bolivia benefited little. 

The Bolivian Mining Corporation, a state-owned company, is currently experimenting with several pilot-stage processes for solution mining. State control would allow lithium carbonate—the raw material—to be converted into products in Bolivia rather than simply exporting the material for use in manufacturing elsewhere. A significant lithium industry beginning with extraction and ending with batteries would also allow Bolivian scientists and engineers to develop scientific and technological capacities that could be applied later to non–lithium related endeavors. And supporters of a homegrown lithium industry believe that national sovereignty over lithium would allow them to better control environmental impacts. 

Bolivian lithium has taken on global significance economically because the sheer size of the lithium reserves could in theory provide cheap, abundant lithium for green energy initiatives—electric cars and renewable energy—in industrialized nations. This possibility also makes the resource geopolitically significant; Western nations might consider the leftist, populist government of Bolivia a threat to their energy security as they shift from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources that require lithium for energy storage. 

In addition to geopolitical concerns international environmental groups worry that exploiting such vast reserves will result in large-scale mining that will contaminate and irreparably damage the Salar. Depending on the processing technique used, lack of water could become a significant issue in the region. International environmental groups and tourism agencies worry that the lithium industry could transform the landscape of the Salar. 

In its transition from useless to useful, lithium has created significant economic, political, and environmental concerns for Bolivia and other industrialized nations around the world. As the importance of Bolivian lithium increases, both at home and globally, it could obstruct Bolivian engineers’ attempts to develop technological independence and control: with a project timeline considerably shaped by global market considerations and a quickly approaching election cycle in Bolivia, their decisions may soon be forced. 

Nathaniel Freiburger was the 2011–2012 Société de Chimie Industrielle Fellow at CHF's Beckman Center and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Davis.