Tech-age buried treasure

Big lithium reserve could make Bolivia a key energy player, supplier to US battery makers

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 15, 2010

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SALAR DE UYUNI, Bolivia - On the edge of an evaporated sea, where the cracked white earth spreads for hundreds of miles over a desolate horizon, wood scaffolding surrounds the first buildings of a project that could transform South America’s poorest nation into the world’s key energy supplier.

Beneath this high desert in the Andes is about half the planet’s supply of lithium, dwarfing all other known sources of the rare mineral, which has experienced a surge in demand in recent years. It is used in making batteries to power everything from cellphones to electric cars.

The Bolivian government is about to launch a multimillion-dollar pilot project to bore into the pristine salt flats and mine the briny liquid below for the valuable element. The US Geological Survey estimates at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted from the Salar de Uyuni, compared with just 410,000 tons of reserves in the United States.

“This project is of huge strategic importance for Bolivia - and for the world,’’ said Moises Vallejos, the plant’s head of security, as he pointed to the new brick buildings that will house engineers and scientists who are expected to begin the process of mining lithium this year. “This is the start of something big.’’

Bolivia’s plans could also have a significant impact on Massachusetts, where companies such as A123 Systems Inc. in Watertown and Westborough’s Boston-Power Corp. rely on dependable sources of the lightweight, heat-resistant metal to build the lithium-ion batteries for the next generation of electronics and cars.

Much of the world’s lithium now comes from the smaller, increasingly depleted reserves in Chile and Argentina, but with millions of hybrid and electric vehicles planned for assembly lines from Detroit to Tokyo over the next decade, demand for the third element on the periodic table is expected to increase significantly.

A US Geological Survey report last year noted that the amount of lithium consumed globally for batteries jumped more than 20 percent a year over much of the past decade, and it’s likely to rise considerably more over the coming decade. Some have even suggested that the world supply may be insufficient to meet the expected demand of lithium-ion batteries.

Officials at the two rapidly growing Massachusetts battery companies declined to say where they obtain their lithium, but they noted that the supply is of strategic importance to their future and to ensuring that rechargeable batteries can be produced affordably.

For example, the price of US imports of lithium carbonate, the chemical compound used in batteries, increased on average 26 percent in 2008 over the previous year, according to the most recent available data from the US Geological Survey.

“The demand for lithium is going to explode,’’ said Jason Forcier, vice president of automotive solutions for A123 Systems, which last year received $249 million in federal stimulus money to build thousands of new lithium-ion batteries.

“It’s fair to compare the lithium reserves in South America to the oil in the Middle East. We see lithium-ion batteries as the power source for batteries for at least the next decade.’’

The need to secure a steady source of high-quality lithium has prompted car and electronics companies around the world to compete for exclusive rights to supplies. A subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp. recently said it would spend tens of millions of dollars to help build a lithium plant in Argentina, and companies like China and France have sent representatives to Bolivia to meet with government officials in La Paz.

But so far, the administration of President Evo Morales, a recently reelected nationalist who frequently criticizes the United States and has nationalized Bolivia’s oil and natural gas industries, has refused to allow foreign companies to mine its lithium.

“We are doing this on our own - for the Bolivian people,’’ said Yolanda Mamani, a spokeswoman for the division of Comibol, the national agency that oversees mining projects, overseeing the pilot project. “The plans are for it to remain 100 percent Bolivian.’’

She declined to say whether US or other foreign firms would ultimately be allowed to help Bolivia mine its lithium, which may be necessary for it become a major supplier. “We are at the beginning of a long process,’’ Mamani said.

The slow pace of Bolivia’s efforts to mine the Salar de Uyuni does not worry Christina Lampe-Onnerud, chief executive of Boston-Power, which recently began mass producing lithium-ion batteries in China.

While Lampe-Onnerud noted a 2008 report by Meridian International Research, a French technology consulting firm, found that the global supply of high-quality lithium is insufficient to meet the demand of millions of new batteries, she said she doesn’t foresee a shortage in the next decade. She added that increased recycling of the silver-colored metal would reduce supply concerns.

“At this point, it’s highly speculative whether Bolivia will be the OPEC of lithium, or whether there will be a supply shortage,’’ she said. “I have made part of my mission to make a more sustainable mode for lithium, which includes recycling and less dependence on virgin metals. But there’s no question that lithium-ion is the future.’’

Some scientists have questioned whether lithium-ion batteries, which can be combustible under some conditions, are right for the coming fleets of electric cars. They wonder how they will hold up in crashes and over time.

“It’s a dumb choice, because it’s so unstable and expensive,’’ said Don Sadoway, a materials chemistry professor at MIT whose research includes trying to find an alternative to lithium-ion batteries. “It’s delusional to pretend that you’re not going to take extreme measures to keep the battery cool. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t use lithium ion, but if this is the best way to move beyond the internal combustion engine, I support it, for now.’’

The prospect that a new technology could make the lithium supplies in Bolivia irrelevant has prodded the country’s officials to expedite the $6 million pilot project near the village of Rio Grande on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.

In coming months, despite concerns about environmental impacts, the Bolivians will bore holes into the white crust until they reach the liquid containing lithium. They will then use industrial pumps to withdraw the brine, which will be collected in large pools where it can evaporate. The resulting slush will be processed into a fine powder and ultimately molded into small bricks.

In a poor region of a poor country, where paved roads are rare and electricity comes and goes, the prospect of a new industry and a new source of jobs excites local officials.

While they worry about how large mining operations will affect the land, they are happy to compare their deserts with those in Saudi Arabia.

“We’re all waiting to see how this turns out,’’ said Francisco Quisbert, leader of Frutcas, a regional federation of local workers who some call Comrade Lithium. “We think this could create a whole new economy for us. It’s taken some time, but we’re very optimistic.’’

David Abel can be reached at