Lithium in Bolivia: General Perspective and Challenges

Featured Image: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Photo: Samuel Scrimshaw)

Covering an area of 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 square miles), at an elevation of 3,65 m in the southwest of Bolivia, there is a place where the sky and the earth merge in an eternal reflection. Also called the “Mirror of the heavens”, the Salar de Uyuni is one of the most beautiful places on earth (Figure 1). 40,000 years ago it was once an enormous lake which dried and evaporated leaving the world's largest salt flat. Additional to their natural beauty, these salt flats are also the world’s single largest known lithium deposit (Hancock et al., 2018).

Figure 1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Source: Found the World 

Lithium is a very peculiar element with high relevance for the future as it is one of the raw materials from which Lithium Ion batteries (LIBs) are produced. These batteries were commercially introduced by Sony in the early 1990s. Nowadays, LIBs represent one of the most important battery technologies that dominate the energy storage market around the globe (Chen et al., 2020).

LIBs are also a unique development because they represent the lightest metal with unparalleled energy density ability for storage, allowing solar, wind, and other non-continuous energy development to be more effectively harnessed (Chen et al., 2020). Furthermore, they have also attracted special interest as the grounding for electric devices production because of LIBs relatively high energy density, high energy efficiency, and long cycle life (Chen et al., 2020). These characteristics allow the production of smaller and more powerful and independent devices.

In the new renewable energy industry development and production, LIBs and therefore lithium plays a key role to allow efficient energy storage and distribution. Nowadays, the exponential growth of variable renewable energy sources pushes the development of new energy storage systems up to the new energy production rates. For example, wind power generation is one of the most important renewable energy sources but because of its intermittent nature highly dependent on seasonality a clear disparity between production peaks and consumption is created, in this context, energy storage appears as the only solution to assure that produced energy is properly consumed (Chen et al., 2020). Furthermore, traditional Lead acid, Ni-Cd and Ni-HM storage units cannot cope with long term storage, safety, and efficiency (Chen et al., 2020).

The fast evolution of the electric vehicle industry as well as the renewable energy industries have brought an enormous increase in the demand for Lithium. Additionally, increasing needs for energy storage such as smaller transport devices like e-bikes and the electrification of daily usage tools rise many questions about the long-term supply availability of the raw materials.

Lithium extraction in South America started in the 1980s in Chile and Argentina, in numerous salt flats with mineral-rich brines (Figure 2). Salt flat precipitates represent 66% of global lithium deposits, lithium brine extraction is done by evaporation pools and has the advantage on hard rock ore extraction, of an easier exploration on softer rocks in flat arid barren areas, shallower drilling for geophysics, faster production set-up, and less capital required. On the other hand, the location of the salt flats is usually in remote areas needing longer transport, power, water, and labor networks and represents a slower production schedule due to evaporation time (Hancock et al., 2018). Scientific studies of the ecological impacts of lithium extraction from brines are still rare (Barandiarán, 2019). The environmental impact of the exploration of these deposits implies large water usage requirements, the input and disposal of chemical concentrates, and biodiversity concerns.

Figure 2. The lithium producing regions of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. (Barandiarán, 2019)

Bolivia has set a target of 79 percent renewable energy by 2030. It has been said that if Bolivia overcomes the challenges of lithium extraction and processing, lithium industrialization has the potential to facilitate Bolivia's and Latin American neighbors' transition to renewables. Ex-president Morales aimed for the production and also the processing of Bolivia's lithium by making its extraction a national priority, alongside with the development of a manufacturing industry rather than its mere exportation to increase Bolivian jobs and progress. Unfortunately, this objective is still not plausible since Bolivia's higher education, research, and development in renewable energy as largely absent. This is related to the lacking of educations and research strategies, financing and infrastructure and the shortage of connections between the industry and academic research. The deficiency of technological adaptation and innovation is also another factor (Hancock et al., 2018).

Lithium mining to provide the global demand could support the provision of minimum public services such as electricity supply to abandoned areas of the country and financial flows to the economy, but could also endanger alternative development paths such as eco-tourism in mining regions (Hancock et al., 2018). Public-private partnerships are needed to develop a local industry for lithium and renewable energies in Bolivia. The advances of this sector could allow an electric supply (and battery storage) for the 1.2 million homes without it. Moreover, a linkage between international partners, academia, and research organizations could help in the financial support and reinforcement of education and upgrading of the life quality of the Bolivian population. Bolivia may only have a short window of opportunity to exploit its lithium resource advantage, as lithium batteries may be overtaken by other new technology in a rapidly changing competitive market in energy storage (Hancock et al., 2018). Hopefully, this opportunity can be taken with the best social, scientific and environmental approach for the benefit of the Bolivian community.

Barandiarán J. (2019) Lithium and development imaginaries in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. World Dev. 113, 381–391.

Chen T., Jin Y., Lv H., Yang A., Liu M., Chen B., Xie Y. and Chen Q. (2020) Applications of Lithium-Ion Batteries in Grid-Scale Energy Storage Systems. Trans. Tianjin Univ. 26, 208–217. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12209-020-00236-w.

Hancock L., Ralph N. and Ali S. H. (2018) Bolivia’s lithium frontier: Can public private partnerships deliver a minerals boom for sustainable development? J. Clean. Prod. 178, 551–560. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.264.