Lithium mining in bolivia: the beacon of hope

It in the batteries of electric cars, laptops and cell phones: Lithium. But now a German-Bolivian project has collapsed.

Here under the salt lake Uyuni they should lie, the lithium reserves Photo: dpa

The salt crystals crunch like frozen snow under the soles of Marco Antonio Condoretty’s shoes. The engineer from the Bolivian state-owned company YLB is out and about around the potassium plant in Llipi, as he does every day. Sunglasses, safety clothing and a helmet are obligatory; the sun is high in the bright blue sky above the snow-white salt lake of Uyuni. A thick crust of salt covers the lake, which lies at 3,650 meters above sea level in southwestern Bolivia. At its edge, a few hundred technicians are busy digging up the country’s greatest treasure: Lithium.

The raw material, an alkali metal, is needed worldwide to produce rechargeable batteries for cell phones, laptops and tablets, batteries for cars and the like. Bolivia wants to play in the concert of the major manufacturers.

"That is realistic. We have laid the foundations in recent years, produce lithium carbonate, manufacture cathodes and batteries, and are on the threshold of industrial production," says Condoretty.

The 36-year-old engineer is responsible for ensuring that everything runs according to plan on the edge of the huge Uyuni salt lake. He coordinates operations at the modern potassium plant that supplies fertilizer to Brazil and Chile, ensures that the pilot plant produces around 400 metric tons of high-purity lithium carbonate a year, and takes care of the expansion of the gigantic swimming pools.

"We currently have eight rows of pools up to 30 hectares in size, where we concentrate the brine with the help of the sun. We are expanding this potential," he explains. Saltwater rich in raw materials is currently being pumped up from 30 boreholes, evaporated in the sun and concentrated to extract lithium alongside other salts and metals such as magnesium or boron.

Batteries for the world market

Complicated processes these are, Condoretty said. "Each well yields a different, specifically concentrated salt solution with different constituents that must be checked regularly by the lab," the medium-size man said. He spent several years living in Japan, working at Nissan and Maxell, soaking up everything from battery manufacturing to lithium use in the ceramics industry like a sponge.

Since 2014, he’s been back and well up the hierarchy at YLP (Bolivian Lithium Resources). The pursues a lofty goal: "We want to produce batteries for the world market in Bolivia. This is our key project for the future, and we have entered into a strategic partnership with a German player, ACI Systems," says Condoretty.

The Germans are to supply what the Bolivian experts are still lacking. The technology to extract the lithium hydroxide from the residual brine, from which both cathodes for battery production and batteries themselves are to be produced. Not just anywhere, but in Bolivia. The two strategic partners also agree on this.

Bolivia’s government canceled a joint venture for lithium production with a German company earlier this month. The governor of the department of PotosI declared that the government of President Evo Morales had stopped the project by decree. The joint venture agreed last December between the state-owned company YLB and the Baden-Wurttemberg-based company ACI Systems aimed to extract lithium from the Uyuni salt lake. The plan was to produce 30,000 to 40,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year from 2022 onward. This would allow hundreds of thousands of e-cars to be equipped with lithium batteries. (dpa)

The German company ACI-Systems from Zimmern ob Rottweil in Baden-Wurttemberg was awarded the contract because, according to CEO Professor Wolfgang Schmutz, it took a holistic approach. "For us, training Bolivians in the individual process technologies is just as much a part of the process as generating energy through photovoltaics – we want to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible in lithium extraction." This impressed the Bolivian side just as much as the fact that ACI-Systems is well networked in the German research landscape and enjoys backing from the German government.

The signing of the contract for the Acisa joint venture in December 2018 was attended by German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, who was pleased that German industry would now have access to lithium. According to ACI CEO Wolfgang Schmutz, 50,000 tons of lithium hydroxide are to be extracted from the contractually fixed 1.8 million tons of residual brine that partner YLB is to supply from the swimming pools in Llipi. In a plant that was to be built just across the street from the fertilizer factory behind which Condoretty has his office. The plans called for the plant to start production in 2021 or 2022 at the latest.

However, these plans are now out of date after the government of Evo Morales passed a law last week repealing Law 3738, in which the cooperation with the German company had been fixed. The civil committee of PotosI (Comcipo), capital of the administrative district in which the Uyuni salt lake is located, had gone on the barricades against this law.

"Rightly so," said Pablo Solon, former UN ambassador for Bolivia and head of the Solon Foundation, which is active in the environment and sustainability sector. "Law 3738, which is the basis of the contract with the German company, is not very beneficial for Bolivia. Neither does ACI-Systems commit to produce batteries en masse in Bolivia together with YLP, nor does it guarantee the safe market for the batteries in Europe. This is what the minister in charge had announced."

Jose Alberto Echazú is the name of the vice minister in charge at the Energy Ministry, who negotiated the contract with Germany’s ACI-Systems. "We agreed to build a 10-gigawatt battery factory in Bolivia that will produce 200,000 to 300,000 batteries for cars. The German partner is responsible for their sales," the minister told the taz in an interview at the end of October.

But the law says nothing about this, as critics like Solon complain. In addition, the law does not list any profit levies for the PotosI region for the extraction of lithium hydroxide from the residual brine – so the region is left empty-handed.

Resistance from the citizens’ committee

This fact has provoked the resistance of the Comcipo, the Citizens’ Committee. For weeks it mobilized in the streets against the law. They accused the government of treason and selling out national resources. For Marco Antonio Condoretty, groundless. "In Bolivia, hardly anyone overlooks the complexity of the extraction and production of batteries. Here, sentiment is being stirred up against a contract that first puts Bolivia on the world map both as a lithium producer and as a battery manufacturer," the engineer is annoyed.

For him, the central project for the future of the government of Evo Morales has only begun to slip as a result of the protests. But even he cannot explain how the numerous inconsistencies between the statements from the ministries and the text of the law came about.

They are, however, striking. For example, there was talk of investments of 1.3 billion U.S. dollars in the production facilities in and around the Uyuni Salt Lake. "But this is not fixed in the text of the law, and to this day we have no access to the actual contract on which the law is based," criticizes Pablo Solon. This lack of transparency has ensured that protests against the German-Bolivian cooperation project swelled in the course of October, and half-truths and conjecture also made the rounds.

Both sides are now facing the shambles of the cooperation project: the German ACI-Systems, which is hoping for help from politicians to get lithium production in Llipi at the Uyuni salt lake off the ground, and the Bolivian government. The latter’s dream of industrial battery production in Bolivia has been put a damper on for the time being.

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