EVs need to store their energy in batteries: mainly Lithium-Ion batteries. As of this particular reason, Lithium seems to be one of the most searched resource.One of the places with the highest Lithium quantity in the world seems to be in Bolivia, at nearly 4 km above the sea level, in the Andes Mountains. The place called Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and has a moon-like landscape. The demand for Lithium is expected to double in the next 10 years and Bolivia with a 9 million tons resource will probably be the “Saudi Arabia of lithium“.
The 10,000-square-kilometer Uyuni salt flat is the breeding ground for pink flamingos and attracts a lot of curious tourists. Actually, this surface was an immense lake in prehistoric times. Water coming from the Andes flows in this region, and carries along minerals, including magnesium and lithium. Then, with the sun’s interaction, the water becomes a mineral-rich brine flowing under the desert’s crusty surface.
Drills are made to almost 50m beneath the surface in order to probe for brine. In the highest Lithium concentration areas, the brine is pumped into evaporation pools. The sun evaporates 7mm of water per day, concentrating the lithium. Lithium is further concentrated by transferring the brine through a series of pools. By this, a lot of impurities are eliminated. The entire process takes more than a year and even if Bolivia will require some foreign expertise, president Evo Morales does not want to involve European or Asian investors in the Lithium extractions.
Because Bolivia lacks the technical infrastructure, some brine samples have been sent to South Korea, France and Japan for analysis. Unfortunately the brine tested has a high concentration of impurities such as magnesium and borate. The plan is to build a full-scale facility near the salt flat that will be able to mix lithium brine with lime and soda ash to produce lithium carbonate (the fine white powder that’s a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries).
Salar de Uyuni was only used up to now for salt extraction but as Lithium demand is increasing dramatically the place is now a global interest. We will see how the Bolivian government will react to this demand and this multi-billion worth industry.