The Bolivian government is planning to invest $450 million in large-scale production of lithium carbonate and potassium carbonate, Morales aide and former mining minister Luis Alberto Echazu told Spanish news agency Efe last week. His announcement came just a few days after Bolivian President Evo Morales and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak signed an agreement to jointly develop a lithium mine and infrastructure for processing and refining.
Lithium—as lithium carbonate—is the key component in rechargeable batteries that power electric devices, including electric and hybrid vehicles, while potassium carbonate is mostly used in fertilizers. As automakers and governments alike pursue alternatives to fossil fuels, they are likely to become increasingly dependent on mineral reserves such as lithium. For Bolivia, which is the poorest country in South America but possesses half of all proven lithium deposits on Earth, this could very well bring about an economic transformation.
The Morales administration says some 100 million tons of lithium lie under the Uyuni Salt Flats in southwest Bolivia. Other estimates, such as one by the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest that the reserves number merely 5.4 million tons. Regardless, electric car manufacturers could draw on the reserves for decades to come. Companies from across Asia and Europe are eager to partner with the Bolivian government to secure access to the reserves.
Echazu, the head of the evaporitic resources office of the COMIBOL state mining corporation, said he expects to have the $450 million in funds by 2011. In the meantime, a pilot plant will be launched to produce 1,000 tons of potassium carbonate per month and 40 tons of lithium carbonate per month. The office’s ultimate goals for annual production of these resources are 700,000 tons and 30,000 tons, respectively.