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Lithium Production: Russia and China Converge on Bolivia

Eastern, Western Superpowers to Lay Their Hands on South American Lithium Reserves Ahead of Other Countries As countries increasingly rely on production to meet their needs, the search for raw materials intensifies on several fronts. One such raw material is lithium, a soft, silvery-white metal that’s the lightest metal in the world. It’s also the third element on the periodic table, meaning it has just three protons in its nucleus. Despite its seemingly simple nature, lithium has a surprising variety of uses. It is used to produce rechargeable batteries, medicine, glass and ceramics, and lubricants. It is also an essential tool in metal refining. Lithium is relatively rare in the Earth’s crust, making up only about 0.006% of its mass. Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia constitute the Lithium Triangle, making

Eastern, Western Superpowers to Lay Their Hands on South American Lithium Reserves Ahead of Other Countries

As countries increasingly rely on production to meet their needs, the search for raw materials intensifies on several fronts. One such raw material is lithium, a soft, silvery-white metal that’s the lightest metal in the world. It’s also the third element on the periodic table, meaning it has just three protons in its nucleus. Despite its seemingly simple nature, lithium has a surprising variety of uses. It is used to produce rechargeable batteries, medicine, glass and ceramics, and lubricants. It is also an essential tool in metal refining.

Lithium is relatively rare in the Earth’s crust, making up only about 0.006% of its mass. Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia constitute the Lithium Triangle, making them the regions with the largest lithium reserves.

Bolivia, in particular, has caught the attention of two of the world’s biggest superpowers, China and Russia. According to official information from Bolivia, Russia’s Uranium One Group, backed by the Russian state-owned company Rosatom, plans to invest around $450 million (€405 million) in a pilot project for lithium production in South America. China has also been able to get its foot in the door in the country with the world’s largest lithium reserves. Under the aegis of the Chinese group Contemporary Amperex Technology, CATL, Chinese partners want to invest $1.4 billion in the construction of lithium extraction plants.

Five years ago, Germany was the vanguard of the lithium partnership with Bolivia. A joint venture with La Paz promised to be the springboard for securing the vital resource for its rapidly growing electric car industry. German automakers envisioned a secure supply chain stretching across the Atlantic; however, the dream dissolved in Bolivia’s volatile political climate. The project sputtered and died, leaving Germany searching for alternatives, principally Argentina and Chile.

Despite the nation’s past political crisis, Bolivia’s 23 million metric tons of certified lithium reserves have drawn interest from China and Russia, which have allied with the South American country to launch industrial-scale production. Moscow and Beijing have now arrived to consummate the process Berlin began.

Reports also indicate that Bolivia is enthusiastic about partnering with the eastern and western duo. Vladimir Rouvinski, an expert on Latin America-Russia relations at Icesi University in Colombia, highlighted the volatile nature of the alliance when he told DW, “It seems that strategic alliances are being forged that suit the current governments. The Bolivian government is showing a preference for Chinese and Russian companies… Ultimately, however, these alliances are short-lived because the logic of economics is that economic interests take precedence over temporary affinities.”

The pilot plant that Uranium One Group, under Rosatom, projects to set up would produce 1,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate in its first year before eventually scaling up to 14,000 tons per year, according to YLB Chief Executive Karla Calderon. YLB, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos, is Bolivia’s state-owned company responsible for its partnership with Russia.

Calderon explained that the project, starting in “Colcha K,” Potosí, will be executed in three phases, Phase 1 being an initial goal of 1,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year. Phase 2 will focus on scaling up to a significant 8,000 tons annually. Phase 3 looks at further expansion, targeting a total of 13,000 tons per year.

The parties involved will focus on environmentally friendly extraction methods as the project serves as a testbed for demonstrating the viability of sustainable lithium production technologies.

On the Chinese end of the lithium affair, CATL, in June 2023, confirmed a $1.4 billion investment to help develop Bolivia’s huge but largely untapped lithium reserves, cementing a partnership with the Bolivian government made in January of the same year.

After a meeting with CATL executives, Bolivian President Luis Arce affirmed the commitment to build two lithium plants to extract the ‘white gold’ from the country’s lithium deposits. The agreement reached meant that CATL would invest over $1 billion in the project’s first stage in exchange for rights to develop the two lithium plants, which could each produce up to 25,000 metric tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate per year.



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