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Lithium, The Driving Force of 21st Century

© Matjaz Krivic

The Driving Force of the 21st Century 

The depths under the world's largest saltflats – Salar de Uyuni – are claimed to contain the world's largest lithium reserves. According to some estimates, the Bolivian Andes contain seventy percent of the planet's lithium.

According to the most optimistic one, as many as 140 million tons of lithium may be available in Salar de Uyuni, while the most pessimistic (US Geological Survey) one foretells 'merely' 9 million tons. Vast quantities of lithium have also been detected at the bottom of the world's oceans. Little wonder then that the mining industry, one of the planet's environmentally most toxic enterprises, is already turning its gaze downward into the seas, scanning for new investment opportunities.

The Bolivian market is opening up. The Chinese are not the only ones to have expressed an interest: the Japanese, the Germans, the Swedes, the French, the Swiss, the Koreans and the Canadians were quick to follow suit. According to our sources, the American electrics giant Tesla also wants in on the action. By the way: the battery for Tesla's Model S requires as many as 54 kilograms of lithium carbonate, which is enough to power approximately 9000 cell phone batteries.

In a 2017 report, the Goldman Sachs investment bank has called lithium carbonate the new gasoline. The report also predicted that by 2025 the lithium market should expand to thrice its current size. Eight years from now the world's yearly demand is expected to total 470 000 tons.

The market is rapidly growing. Countries all over the world – including China and Germany – are proclaiming their “no-more-diesel-cars” policies on regular basis. New models of e-cars are jumping out of the mainstream magazines. Does that mean Bolivia is entering the scrum at an ideal time?

So far, the Chinese are the only ones the Bolivians have allowed into their grand national project. Bolivia and China have long been on friendly terms. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Bolivia's socialist president sees opening the door to Beijing as an anti-imperialist move.

For the last fifteen years, China has been gathering natural wealth exploitation concessions all over the third world. Its impact on the environment has been no less ruinous than that of American and European corporations. Analysts the world over have long noted both China's ideological nimbleness and the naked greed of the leaders of many Latin-American and African countries.

In September 2016, China became the destination of Bolivia's very first export delivery, comprised of 15 tons of lithium carbonate. True, the shipment was more or less symbolic. Yet according to our sources at Comibol, Bolivia had set the price at 9200 dollars per ton. Which makes the shipment much more a gift than anything else – or maybe more of a thank you note for China's generous help with infrastructure construction.

What will Salar de Uyuni look like in five years' time? What can 'the white gold' ultimately bring Bolivia?



In China, the future is now.

As little as thirty years ago the primary transportation device in this stupendously vast land was the bicycle.

The so-called 'flying pigeon' held sway over the countryside and the great urban hubs as well, seeing how very, very few Chinese could afford an automobile. Once the country was opened to the world and a sharp rise in local purchasing power came with it, the car market exploded and kept expanding. Having enthroned itself as one of the chief Chinese status symbols, the automobile soon became both the ultimate personal fetish and a part of the collective identity.

At the moment some 120 million cars are jostling on the Chinese roads. By 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology predicts an additional 80 million will have entered the fray.

As things stand, China makes and sells about half of the world's electric cars. Over the next two years the number is sure to experience a mighty surge. In 2017, more than 300,000 electric vehicles were sold in China – three times as many as in the United States, and more than the rest of the world's total.

Last year, the government issued a decree stating that, by 2025, every fifth vehicle on the Chinese market has to be either an electric model or a hybrid. The companies who refuse to meet this standard are to be removed from the market.

From the current amount of one million, the authorities' plan is to boost the number of electric cars on Chinese roads to five million. This, according to the official projections, is to be accomplished by 2020. Yet the heavy increase in electric-vehicle production is merely one of the bullet points of the ambitious state programme entitled China 2025. The plan does a creditable job of detailing China's ambition to become the dominant world player in a number of hi-tech industrial branches, including the production of solar panels, wind turbine and robotics. The aim is nothing less than to complete the country's transformation from the world's sweatshop into a sort of Asian Germany.

The lithium battery is by far the most expensive component in the current generation of electric vehicles. It naturally follows that the battery is also at the core of the still rather hefty price tag. Yet according to McKinsey agency data, the average price of the batteries that power electric vehicles has fallen by eighty percent from 2010. It has currently settled at approximately 200 Euros per kilowatt hour. Analysts have calculated that the great increase in Chinese supply has been the main factor in this remarkable reduction. By 2020, the global supply of electric vehicle batteries is projected to add up to 260 gigawatt hours, almost doubling the 2017 tally. The official Ministry of Industry data states that, over the first eight months of the recently expired year, China built 6.7 billion lithium batteries – a 51 percent increase over the same period last year.

China is not only the world's biggest producer of electric vehicles and lithium batteries. It is also the leading supplier of all the main components needed to make an electric vehicle. Its bid for global dominance has come at such lightning speed that previous eras might find it incomprehensible. Lest we forget, China is also the planet's biggest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, ESS systems and drones. There can be little doubt that the Chinese state, in conjunction with its major corporations, is trying to grab the reins of the entire global supply chain. The Roskill agency estimated that, by 2025, the world market will require some 785,000 tons of this strategically valuable compound per year. According to the same source, 227,000 tons were available in 2017. Currently, China uses around forty percent of the global supply.

Chinese state-backed companies are intensively and aggressively seeking out fresh deposits of lithium carbonate all over the globe. Some Chinese corporations have been known to purchase mines all by themselves. Lithium reserves are limited; the recycling process has proven slow and thus far unreliable. Therefore the 'occupation' of resources provides a key strategic advantage in the global energy grab. It is this context that provides the best insight into the Chinese military build-up of recent years. Energy sources have become a key geostrategic priority, and they need to be secured and protected at all costs.

One needs to be very careful when analysing the many black and aggressively grey hues of the Chinese green explosion. Currently, a staggering seventy percent of the country's energy consumption is still fuelled by coal. For the next few years at least, this is not about to change.



The global lithium market, heavily reliant on the electric mobility (r)evolution, has thus far seen America fall behind the competition. Last year the United States produced a mere two percent of the world's lithium. According to the U.S. Geological Survey data, the US boasts as much as thirteen percent of the planet's lithium reserves. The discrepancy is a baffling, if not altogether unaccountable one.

What with the trade war and a number of other factors, the US is most dramatically lagging behind China, who now leads the global lithium market both in production and consumption. Yet lithium, the key component of electric cars, smart phones, computers, gaming consoles, energy storage systems and solar panels, is quite literally becoming the driving force of the 21st century. It seems that Washington has finally caught up with the fact, having recently put lithium on its list of critical raw material – essentially list of strategically vital resources. Along with cobalt, the lithium-ion battery's other key component.

Nevada is traditionally considered one of America's core mining states, existentially bound to the long and profitable era of fossil fuels. But over the last two years, despite the carbon-centric policies of Donald Trump and the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, profound changes have been impacting America's south west. In Nevada, black is turning green. And lithium projects are sprouting all over the continent: in Utah, Arkansas, Illinois, North Carolina, …

As a consequence, the salt fields and geologically diverse mountains and valleys of both North and South Nevada are experiencing the first stages of 'lithium rush'. Numerous global mining corporations and many newly founded companies have entered the fray, prospecting the brine, the mountains and the former oil drilling sites while battling for investments.

The images from South Nevada are reminiscent of the days of the great oil and gold rush. Something huge and exciting can be scented on the wind; many call it 'the next big thing'. Research facilities and temporary workers' residential buildings have sprung up all over the previously deserted landscape, which, in a perfect metaphor, has so far only been 'decorated' with abandoned gas stations and dump sites filled with squashed old cars and buses.

The money driving the ambitious lithium ventures in Nevada mostly come from the oil industry. Just like China's, the US's green expansion is fuelled by the champions of its black-hued history.


We also visited the most important lithium research centre in Germany (K-UTEC).

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