Introduction: Innovation, Governance, and Lithium
Bolivia is on the verge of a revolutionary boom. After years of missed opportunities under the previous and interim administrations, Bolivian presidential hopeful Luis Arce recognizes the nation’s richest national resource will be the key to creating a strong economic power. Lithium, often referred to as “white petroleum”, is an integral part of the future, and is found in everything from phones and electric vehicles to large-scale energy storage. Identified as a key component in the global push to create a more sustainable world, lithium has become the most important natural resource of the 21st century – and Bolivia sits on the world’s largest lithium deposits. Mr. Arce has announced plans – via global mineral advisory firm Benchmark Intelligence – to integrate lithium into the core agenda of the country’s economy.
Economic Boom on the Horizon
This has raised prospects that the South American nation could see an economic boom similar to that seen in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other major oil-rich nations once petroleum became their economic focus. In the statement released by Benchmark, Arce is quoted as saying, “Under a Luis Arce Presidency, Bolivia will partner with world-leading companies to harness the value of our abundant lithium resources to create jobs and improve the economic welfare for all Bolivians.” He goes on to explain, “We are committed to developing Bolivia’s lithium resources” including the following steps:
- Completing a full assessment of Bolivia’s lithium resources
- Engaging with leading companies in lithium and batteries from all over the world
- Inviting these leading companies to bid on the right to develop domestic lithium mining and chemicals industries
- Establishing a fiscal regime to ensure that the industry’s development produces tax revenue for the people
- Ensuring that Bolivia is viewed as the global leader in the lithium industry
“Our teams efforts to commercialize Bolivia’s lithium industry will focus on the following goals for benefiting Bolivia:
- Creating high-skilled high-paying mining and chemicals jobs for Bolivian people
- Gaining tax revenue that can be funneled into building new hospitals, schools, and infrastructure
- Economic development to create community wealth while minimizing environmental impact
- Growing international recognition for Bolivia through its participation in one of the fastest-growing global industries
- Playing our part in addressing the global climate change emergency
Arce finished by pronouncing, “Our team’s tailored strategy to take advantage of the unprecedented growth in the lithium industry is a once-in-a-generation event that creates wealth for the Bolivian people for many decades to come.”
Past Bolivian Pitfalls
Although Bolivia has 9 million tonnes of identified lithium resources buried beneath its famed salt flats, the largest being the Salar de Uyuni, “Bolivia has leaned too hard on the fact that they have the ‘biggest resource’ and not taken the practical steps to realize the opportunity over time,” explains economist Emily Hersh, in an interview with Mining.com. However with all the hype and attention, the Andean country has barely had any production of lithium chemicals, only about 400 tonnes in the past 12 years, while spending nearly $400 million on the endeavor. State-owned lithium company YLB oversees the extraction of lithium from complex brines beneath the salt flats at approximately 4,000 meters altitude,
A report co-authored by Hersh and published by the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines states that YLB’s overarching strategy, which includes numerous downstream steps beyond converting lithium into fine chemicals, such as manufacturing cathode materials, and manufacturing full lithium-ion cells, is playing against the country’s lithium potential. They need to do one thing, and do it great, before moving on to more complicated manufacturing processes. “Each of these work streams is different, making it unlikely that one company can do them all,” the document reads. “Companies around the world are spending millions of dollars on R&D for single steps in supply chains, while YLB is not sufficiently financed or experienced to perform any of them effectively.”
In other words, YLB has been spread too thin and tasked to develop too many complex projects simultaneously, which has yielded very small results in the past 10 years.
Direct Lithium Extraction Technology
After years of economic uncertainty, Bolivia now has the potential under Arce leadership to become a global leader in lithium mining, Lithium is the key to a strong Bolivia, and Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is the key to unlocking Bolivia resource. Mr. Arce has recognized the benefits of brining in sophisticated, international technology companies to help Bolivia, rather than trying to do it all themselves. Drafting those initial policy documents has shown how the presidential candidate can successfully turn the country around, providing widespread benefits across the nation, while helping create a better planet.
Companies such Energy Exploration Technologies, (Full Disclosure – I am the Founder & CEO of EnergyX) have spent millions of dollars on Direct Lithium Extraction R&D for one specific step in the lithium production chain. This step, the separation of Lithium from Magnesium, happens to be the single step that Bolivia needs the most. Salar de Uyuni has 25:1 Magnesium to Lithium ratio, making production of pure lithium nearly impossible. This is the reason Bolivia hasn’t been able to produce any lithium to date, and this is the problem we solve using advanced membrane filtration technology.
Now with new Bolivian leadership opening their borders and engaging with leading technology companies from all over the world, it affords companies like EnergyX, and others working on DLE, to help the people of this poverty-stricken nation. As outlined in the Arce announcement, the lithium policy envisioned would make the most of Bolivia’s natural resources without extensively harming the environment. Under this scenario, the South American nation would become a global powerhouse similar to the oil-rich Gulf countries, that had themselves previously been where Bolivia currently is, prior to the development of their oil industries. However, while oil and petroleum are beginning to lose their importance as the world transitions towards cleaner energy, ‘white petroleum’ is taking its place.
Conclusion: An Important Election
A truly innovative vision that will provide long-lasting economic prosperity while engaging in environmentally-conscious and high tech mining makes Arce the front running candidate.
The reason people believe in Arce is because he is a technology-focused and economic-based leader. Prior to this presidential run, he was Economic and Finance Minister under former president Evo Morales, where he was the principal architect of Bolivia’s economic rise due to the nationalization of the gas industry. During these years under Arce’s economic strategy, the country saw repeated annual growth, tremendous improvements to GDP, and substantial decrease in poverty levels. The question is, can Arce take that experience and apply it to the way bigger prize, lithium?
Bolivia’s expansive and untapped lithium resources make it one of the most intriguing nations in terms of future development. Bolivia is on the edge of what could be a historic moment. The Bolivian election will be on the minds of countries around the world, as they shift their focus towards producing lithium for the transition to electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage. Bolivian lithium and the Bolivian people could be at the heart of global change with Arce at the lead.