South America's Lithium Reserves Are a Boon—Maybe

'Wall Street Journal' looks at the obstacles in extracting one of world's biggest reserves
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 21, 2022 2:40 PM CDT
South America Has Tons of Lithium. Getting It Isn't Easy
A stock photo of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, which is rich in lithium.   (Getty Images / Jens Otte)

As the appetite for electric vehicles grows, the Wall Street Journal sees an obstacle in the way of production expanding at a similar clip: South America. The continent is one of three places on Earth—the others being Australia and China—that have substantial reserves of lithium, the metal needed to make electric-vehicle batteries. In his dive into the issue, Ryan Dube highlights what's unique about South America's lithium—the good and the bad. Elsewhere around the globe, the metal is extracted from hard rock. In Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, which share an area known as the Lithium Triangle, the lithium resides in underground water that's pumped to surface ponds and left to evaporate. That makes it cheaper to produce, though there's lengthier front-end work required (roughly eight years) to construct a mine.

The process carries its own set of environmental impacts: As many as 2,800 cubic meters of water are needed to make a ton of lithium in Chile; that's about 40 times the water required to make a ton of copper. Dube cites examples of proposed mines being scuttled after protests from environmentalists and local indigenous peoples, but he flags "resource nationalism" as the potential biggest looming problem. Dube suggests that as more left-wing leaders take power, it becomes likelier that countries will want to put lithium extraction under state control. That could make it more onerous for foreign investors to get involved and could put lithium reserves in the hands of state companies that just aren't skilled or knowledgeable enough to ramp production way up. (Read the full story, in which Dube flags Bolivia's decision to nationalize lithium in 2008, with hugely underwhelming results.)

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