Big plans for lithium triangle: South Americans want to raise “white gold treasure”

Big plans for lithium triangle
South Americans want to raise “white gold treasure”

Lithium is a central component of modern batteries – for example for electric cars. This makes the light metal one of the most competitive raw materials of the future. The states in southern Latin America want to benefit from this. A company from Baden-Württemberg plays an important role.

Luis Arce has big plans: The Bolivian president wants to use the trend towards electromobility and lead his desperately poor country into a bright future. The gigantic lithium deposits in the Salar de Uyuni are supposed to help him. “We use our raw materials in sovereignty and for the benefit of the Bolivians,” said the head of state last week at a lithium symposium in La Paz. He spoke and rushed away in an electromobile made in Bolivia, with Bolivian lithium and a Bolivian battery.

Global Lithium Index 160.90

Bolivia is still a long way from series production of the vehicle, which is reminiscent of a golf cart, but at least the government of the South American country now wants to get into the lithium business. So far, the light metal has only been promoted for experimental purposes, now the treasure of “white gold” is to be raised on an industrial scale. By 2030, Bolivia wants to be able to meet around 40 percent of global demand, says Arce. At the symposium in La Paz, companies from all over the world presented their latest technologies for lithium extraction.

The automotive industry is in a state of upheaval, the future belongs to electric vehicles: According to the market research company IHS Markit, sales of electric cars worldwide are expected to increase by 70 percent this year. Whether the traffic turnaround actually succeeds, however, will depend above all on the availability of powerful batteries and thus on access to lithium. The ions from the salts of the alkali metal are essential for the transport of the electrical charge in most modern high-performance batteries. According to a market study, the demand for lithium could quintuple in the next 35 years.

South American countries from the “lithium triangle” also want to play a role: According to a survey by the US geology authority, 58 percent of the world’s lithium reserves are in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Because of an oversupply and low prices, the mining companies had recently invested little in expanding production and opening up new mines. But if the production of electric vehicles increases significantly in the coming years, that could change.

Germans play an essential role


President Acre in an electric vehicle made in Bolivia, with Bolivian lithium and a Bolivian battery.

(Photo: picture alliance / dpa / YLB)

Chile has the largest proven lithium reserves in the world and ranks second in production after Australia. Because of the favorable geological and geographical conditions, the production costs in Chile are only a third of those in Australia. The high water consumption of lithium production in the Atacama Desert – one of the driest places in the world – is, however, repeatedly criticized. A new constitution is currently being drawn up in Chile. It is possible that the salt lakes from which the lithium is extracted will in future be defined as water reservoirs instead of mineral deposits and specially protected.

In Argentina Lithium is currently being mined in two mines, but nearly 40 more projects are in the pipeline. BMW recently announced that it would also get its lithium from Argentina from next year. The German car company wants to have half of the cars it sells fully electric by 2030. The government in Buenos Aires sees the rising demand as an opportunity to significantly increase revenues from the lithium business. Production is expected to almost triple to 230,000 tons by the end of next year. Export revenues could then rise from $ 190 million to around $ 1 billion. However, high inflation, sometimes erratic government action and strict exchange controls make Argentina a difficult place for foreign investors.

With the Salar de Uyuni lies in Bolivia the largest single lithium deposit in the world. Shortly before his resignation, the then President Morales had terminated a cooperation agreement between the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos and the Baden-Württemberg company ACI Systems in 2018 due to protests in the Potosí region. After the political situation had calmed down somewhat recently, the talks have now resumed. In any case, President Arce is determined to make Bolivia a serious player in the lithium business.

Access to sufficient lithium plays an essential role for the German automotive industry. “With the joint venture, Germany is securing direct access to important, non-domestic raw materials for the first time in decades,” said the managing director of ACI Systems, Wolfgang Schmutz, when signing the cooperation agreement with the Bolivians. The automotive industry must also significantly expand its capacities for its own production of mobile voltage sources if e-mobility is to really make a breakthrough and to achieve compliance with the more stringent climate protection targets. VW recently announced that it would build several additional battery cell factories in the coming years. Opel has teamed up with the French specialist Saft. BMW and Daimler are also investing billions in e-mobility and the further development of cell technology.