Foreigners seek access to untapped lithium

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Foreigners seek access to untapped lithium

Bolivia wants to protect resource that companies, governments need to reduce need for oil.

Simon Romero / New York Times

UYUNI, Bolivia — In the rush to build the next generation of hybrid or electric cars, a sobering fact confronts automakers and governments seeking to lower their reliance on foreign oil: Almost half of the world’s lithium, the mineral needed to power the vehicles, is found in Bolivia — a country that may not be willing to surrender it easily.

Japanese and European companies are busily trying to strike deals to tap the resource, but a nationalist sentiment about the lithium is building quickly in the government of President Evo Morales, an ardent critic of the United States who has nationalized Bolivia’s oil and natural gas industries.

For now, the government talks of closely controlling the lithium and keeping foreigners at bay. Adding to the pressure, indigenous groups in the remote salt desert where the mineral lies are pushing for a share in the eventual bounty.

"We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium," said Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.

None of this is dampening efforts by foreigners, including the Japanese and French. . They have sent representatives to La Paz, the capital, to meet with Morales’ government about gaining access to the lithium, a critical component for the batteries that power cars and other electronics.

"There are salt lakes in Chile and Argentina, and a promising lithium deposit in Tibet, but the prize is clearly in Bolivia," Oji Baba, an executive in Mitsubishi’s Base Metals Unit, said.

Mitsubishi is not alone in planning to produce cars using lithium-ion batteries. Ailing automakers in the United States are pinning their hopes on lithium. One of them is General Motors, which next year plans to roll out its Chevrolet Volt, a car using a lithium-ion battery along with a gas engine. Nissan, Ford and BMW, among other carmakers, have similar projects.

Demand for lithium, long used in small amounts in mood-stabilizing drugs and thermonuclear weapons, has climbed as makers of batteries for BlackBerrys and other electronic devices use the mineral. But the automotive industry holds the biggest untapped potential for lithium, analysts say. Since it weighs less than nickel, which is also used in batteries, it would allow electric cars to store more energy and be driven longer distances.

To get to the mineral, technicians first need to get brine, or water saturated with salt that is found deep beneath the salt desert, to the surface. There, it is evaporated in pools to expose the lithium.

The U.S. Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and 410,000 in the United States.

While estimates vary widely, some geologists say electric-car manufacturers could draw on Bolivia’s lithium deposits for decades.

As Bolivia ponders how to tap its lithium, nations with smaller reserves are stepping up. China has emerged as a top lithium producer, tapping reserves found in a Tibetan salt flat.

Juan Carlos Zuleta, an economist in La Paz, said: "We have the most magnificent lithium reserves on the planet, but if we don’t step into the race now, we will lose this chance. The market will find other solutions."

 
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