We notice them when they are about to run out. Icons glow red, warnings flash. The curse of modern mobility: our battery’s about to give up.
As our world gets increasingly mobile-minded and we become more dependent on technology, we keep using them more and more and implementing them in an increasing amount of electronic devices including electric cars: batteries. But how are the batteries, that we so depend on, made and where do the resources come from?
El Salar de Uyuni, the second largest salt area in the world, with an area of 10,582 Km2 is situated at an altitude of 3650 meters in the highlands of Bolivia’s greatest mining town, Potosi.
El Salar, translated roughly in English: salt lake. How did this beauty settle itself in Bolivia? About 25 million years ago, when volcanoes erupted in Bolivia, lithium came with it. About 24 million years later, it rained (does not happen very often in Bolivia). The salar is a natural basin with no drainage channels and thus with rain, it filled up quickly. A huge lake would be an understatement to describe the huge plane of water that formed, it stretched through the full north-south length of Bolivia. The water had an abundance of lithium and other elements coming from the volcano eruption, this would eventually evaporate into the salt plains known to many tourists today who call it a huge mirror.
El Salar de Uyuni, at the crest of the Anders lies the world’s largest reserve of lithium.
Chile is currently the world’s leading supplier of lithium and next to it lies Argentina, world’s number four producer of lithium. Together with Bolivia, these three countries are known as the ‘lithium triangle’ holding most of the world’s supply of the element, a place they now say will be the Saudi Arabia of an age driven by electric vehicles. According to Jose Bustillos, directors of operations at Bolivia’s state mining agency COMIBOL, Bolivia holds 70% of the world’s lithium reserves.
The government has planned to invest $925 million until 2019 in the industrialization of lithium, a valuable element in the production of batteries. The National Management of Evaporitic Resources and German company K-UTEC AG Salt Technologies signed a contract to prepare a design for the construction of the Industrial Plant.
The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has stated that the study demanded a state investment of $33.6 million USD and the carbonate that would be produced there would be marketed across border at $7,000 USD per ton. The salt plains hold between 20 to 100 million tons of untapped lithium reserves. Morales invited organizations who could present their research and projects to build a plant in Bolivia to process lithium. The engineering plans needed to have solutions to Bolivia’s technical challenges. The salt lakes in Uyuni have a humid, and well – salty – environment. Moreover, the salt plains are flooded by seasonal rainfall every February (probably the only time it rains in Bolivia). Moreover, the lithium is mixed with magnesium, complicating the extraction process. According to Gail Mahood, a geological and environmental science professor at Standford “It is close to lithium on the periodic table and behaves in a similar way,” this extraction process will require a lot of freshwater which will “definitely push the price up.”
Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany presented their plans. Germany met the technical requirements and its detailed engineering plans won the bid.
“Bolivia is a country blessed with natural resources but these have been ransacked by outsiders over the years and Bolivians have been left with peanuts,” Bustillos says, as he explains the governments approach.
“We want to export not just raw material but finished products, such as batteries. But we have to be realistic. That is not going to happen quickly. And we will need to generate trust in products made in Bolivia. ”