Lithium is mined in salt deserts in the Bolivian Andes and a few other places in the world.
The stuff has been used for years in mood-stabilizing drugs, particularly in bipolar and “borderline personality disorders” for the really unstable and chaotic folks. And, we learn, it’s used to make thermonuclear devices, also unstable and chaotic.
Turns out that Bolivia is sitting on almost half of the world’s lithium resources. And we want it, we need it, to feed the ferocious demand building for all those batteries for all those electric and hybrid cars we are dreaming of. Lithium is indeed the stuff of capitalistic dreams. But there may be a glitch.
President Evo Morales doesn’t want to sell it. At least not yet. His socialist government aims to keep it for the benefit of the country and the Indians who laboriously mine it by hand. Gold, silver, tin, oil and gas have been exported over the years, while Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants,” says one of the salt gatherers.
Some kind of development will come, though it may be problematic. A state-owned pilot plant on the salt flats is under construction, but production will be low.
That doesn’t make the auto producers happy, and they are all flooding into Bolivia to lobby the government for rights, partnerships, whatever deal they can get. The Japanese in particular are going after lithium like they hunt down whales and fish. But so are others, including GM (for the Volt), Nissan, Mitsubishi, Ford, and BMW.
The country’s minister of mining, Luis Alberto Echazu, had this to say to the BBC:
We want to send a message to the industrialized countries and their companies. We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialization of the west that has left us poor.
The BBC also quotes mining analyst Charles Kernot on the difficulties ahead:
That whole process [of successful mining] may take a lot longer than people are anticipating. . . . Consequently, the car manufacturers will have to strike a balance between how quickly they manufacture with the supply of metal because they don’t want to drive the price up to such an extent that the cars get priced out of the market.
I think that means these batteries could get very expensive. While they are waiting and worrying, automakers could do worse than pop a lithium tab. Side effects are generally mild.
Government, technology, and politics are more than ever interlinked. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?