Over 3,600 metres above sea level on the blinding white plain of the world's largest salt flat, landlocked Bolivia is dramatically ramping up production of lithium to cope with soaring global demand for the prized electric-battery metal.
Bolivia, among the poorest countries in South America, sits on one of the world's largest lithium reserves, at the Salar de Uyuni – or Uyuni Salt Flats – ready to take full advantage in the coming age of the electric car. But while it sits at the apex of South America's "lithium triangle," along with Chile and Argentina, Bolivia has not had the capacity to produce the metal on a commercial scale.
That will change when its Llipi plant comes online in 2020. The factory, guarded by the army because of the metal's value, will have an annual production capacity of 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate, project manager Marco Antonio Condoretty told AFP.
State company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), established by the government of President Evo Morales in 2008 to exploit lithium in the salt flats, aims to make Bolivia the fourth-largest producer by 2021.
Bolivia said earlier this year that Uyuni alone likely has at least 21 million metric tons of lithium, more than double previous estimates.
Until now, the Salar de Uyuni has been a major tourist attraction, and environmentalists have raised concerns about the landscape being irreparably altered by exploiting the lithium deposits underneath. But Condoretty insisted that lithium exploitation would use "clean technologies" and affect only about three percent of the salt flat.
China is the world's biggest consumer of lithium, with 63 percent of the market, according to Ingred Garces, professor of engineering at Chile's Antofagasta University.
With its voracious appetite for lithium, the Asian giant has positioned itself at the centre of the world's main deposits of the metal. By 2025, China will need 800,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles.
China's Tianqui Lithium Corp. took a 24 percent stake in Chilean producer SQM last December, placing itself inside the "Lithium Triangle," which has 80 percent of the globe's known deposits.