Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can Bolivia become a green energy superpower?

Bolivia has vast reserves of lithium, one of the largest reserves of clean energy future, and wants to exploit it alone. But lithium is enclosed under a salt of about 10,000 square kilometers

The Guardian
December 29, 2011
Google translation

Bolivia's  lithium  lies beneath its vast salt flats
Bolivia has more lithium than any other country in the world but its battery power potential "lithium ion" for electric cars is in danger of not materialize.

The vast reserves of lithium are dissolved in a saltwater lagoon below the layer of the highest salt lake in the world, which has led to all kinds of superlative comparisons, one of the most memorable is that the landlocked country to become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

There is a comparison that pleases the Socialist government of President Evo Morales. The first indigenous leader of the nation has promised that Bolivia exploit lithium reserves alone, in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all Bolivians.

But nearly four years since the start of the project to exploit the reserves of lithium in the Salar de Uyuni - an amount that could exceed 100 million tons - no impatience about when the Bolivian people will feel the benefits of its immense potential .

Lithium is considered a green energy future, empowering iPods, cell phones, laptops and electric cars. But Bolivia's reserves are locked up under a salt of 10.000 square kilometers. While thousands of tourists are welcomed to look at the bright white area of ​​the sea surrounded by mountains on the horizon, foreign investors have to wait.

"There are many people who think that the Bolivian government is too slow to industrialize these reservations and will miss the train," says Guillaume Roelants, the chief project scientist lithium Comibol, the Mining Corporation of Bolivia . "That is totally false because international demand for lithium is still low despite much speculation. So I think we have time."

The lithium project is still in the "pre pilot" and the industrial production of about 30,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year is not expected until early 2015, Roelants said. "The plan as an industry is to supply batteries for the world to hundreds if not thousands of years, then a month will not be a big problem," he adds.

The trauma of the Spanish conquest has left many Bolivians very suspicious of multinational companies, whom they accuse of plundering its natural resources. Morales has used this feeling nationalizing the electricity and hydrocarbon sectors in one of the poorest nations in South America. Also changed the constitution to correct historical inequities in the country.

But Bolivia may be losing a historic opportunity, says Juan Carlos Zuleta, a Bolivian who is an expert in the economics of lithium. "I think this government is not interested in developing this important resource, not only good for Bolivia but for the whole world," he says.

He insists that Bolivian scientists are still struggling to find a way to industrialize the mineral and suggests that the country urgently seek input from countries with more experience in the production of lithium. For example, neighboring countries, Chile and Argentina, have become established producers of lithium, although large reserves are much less than Bolivia's.

"There is already a career in the world for lithium and Bolivia is not part of this race," adds Zuleta.

General Motors, Hyundai and Nissan are just some of the automakers that are to launch new electric or hybrid cars in 2012.

Bolivia will be "indispensable for the electric car market by the amount of resources you have," said Zuleta. "If the world can have an electric car era, we need to Bolivia," he adds.

But it is a three step process, and Bolivia is only found in the first. Already built a processing plant at a cost of $ 5m in a remote corner of Salt is extracted cloridrato lithium carbonate and potassium - used for fertilizer - from solar evaporation ponds.

The Central Bank of Bolivia will contribute $ 500m in the process of industrialization in 2015 with the possibility of making lithium batteries. From this time the Bolivian government will accept foreign technical assistance, according to official sources.

Bolivia has already held talks with China, Japan, South Korea, France and Finland on "strategic alliances" for this final stage, says Freddy Beltran, vice-minister of the ministry of mining.

Beltran conceded that there have been delays due, according to him, the bureaucratic system. But he said not impact the long-term national challenge to become an "exporter of raw materials to (a country) that can industrialize their own resources."

While mining is this nation adapting to the new challenges of evaporite minerals such as lithium will you be able to leave traditional resources - such as zinc and tin - and move toward clean, renewable energy? And if that were the case, will improve the lives of millions of Bolivians?

"There is much poverty in Bolivia and we need a new source of income," says Zuleta. A ton of lithium carbonate is worth about $ 5,500, and some experts estimate that Bolivia's reserves could be worth more than $ 1 trillion.

In Venezuela and Iran - two countries rich in oil and closest ideological allies to the Bolivian government - perhaps not appropriate to cover the full potential of clean energy from the battery. But right next to Bolivia, the regional superpower, Brazil, is already using ethanol as fuel in their cars. While biofuels compete with food production, Brazil would have to seek new sources of energy to fuel the growing number of car owners in a middle class is expanding exponentially.

It's a business opportunity that Bolivia can become a clean energy superpower, says Zuleta.

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