August 24, 2015

The Lithium Dilemma for Bolivia

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The Morales government has been continuing its plans to develop Bolivia in economic terms based on the extraction of natural resources. One of its latest objectives has been to add the mineral Lithium to the resource list, which includes gold, silver, soy, wood and, most of all, natural gas. That is because, the Salar de Uyuni, a salt-flat some 10 thousand square kilometers large located south-west in the Potosi department and near the Andes, is considered by the government the next significant source of wealth for the country. This gigantic area, roughly the size of Connecticut, has the potential to be one of the largest lithium-producing areas in the world, and that is very tempting for the Bolivian government.

For that reason alone, the Bolivian government is planning to invest, with the help of its Central Bank, some 925 million dollars by 2019, in the hopes to develop an industry capable to meet the world demand for lithium due to growth in the car and electronics industries. In few words, Morales pretends to turn Bolivia the first supplier of lithium based batteries for the world.

However, in light of the slow pace of Bolivia's industry pretensions (presumably until 2019), the rapid pace of technology developments (including in the area of battery development), the interest of the different industries that use this kind of batteries to come up with an alternative to lithium batteries and, not to forget, the dangers of lithium batteries, it is important to question whether the strategic plans of the Bolivian government are well founded. After all, it would be senseless to invest so much money in creating an industry from scratch to only see it become obsolete before recovering at least the investment.

The Bolivian government places its hopes (and at this point one cannot say more than that) on the, at the moment, insatiable demand for lithium batteries around the world. And that, is not that crazy. At the moment, li-ion batteries are being used in practically every mobile device thinkable, laptops, tablets, cellphones, etc. The advantages are well known: lots of power, reasonable rechargeable times and relatively long-life. To that, one has to consider the use of these batteries in the auto industry. Many car makers are already using li-ion batteries to power their hybrid or electric cars. The plans, in fact, are the increase the use of such batteries and the increase in the production of such cars. Many governments, in their efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and meet their self set emissions targets, are actively funding the increase production of e-cars.

In light of that, it seems a good idea for the Bolivian government to bet for the development of an industry that may have significant prospects. This would make even more sense if we consider the amount of lithium available in the Salar de Uyuni and that lithium itself is not that wide-spread as other resources around the world. 

However, is the future of li-ion batteries assured? Above all, is the demand for such batteries assured? Will they be replaced by another invention? (one that might already be in the works?). The short answer to the last questions seems to be, yes, there are alternatives being worked on. One in particular seems to be very promising: aluminium based batteries.

There are several reasons why has the industry been thinking about developing alternatives to li-ion batteries. The most significant of these has been its tendency to catch fire. There have been numerous reports of such batteries catching fire or even exploding. Other reasons are their not so efficient charge time and their relatively insufficient life-spans. In fact, the industry (in this case the battery industry) has been long seeking other alternatives, but none has been more promising as the aluminium alternative. These batteries have been cheap to produce, they take short times to recharge and presented low levels of risk (as compared with the li-ion batteries). The only caveat has been the relatively low levels of energy they produce. However, the industry seems to be paying a lot of attention to the development of a viable alternative to li-ion batteries.

In conclusion, while it might seem, at the moment, a good idea for Bolivia to develop a lithium battery industry, the future of li-ion batteries looks very uncertain. If the industry is actively seeking for alternatives, the long-term future for those Bolivian plans seem not to be so good. They would only make sense if Bolivia starts producing such batteries as soon as possible. That would mean, the development process would need to be sped up a great deal.

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