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Bolivian President Alleges Failed ‘Coup’ Attempt All About Lithium

  • Last week, Bolivia experienced a brief political crisis as soldiers led by Army Commander General Juan José Zúñiga attempted a coup.
  • President Arce asserts that the coup was a genuine attempt by foreign interests to seize Bolivia's vast lithium resources.
  • Despite Bolivia's large lithium deposits, technical challenges have hindered production.

Last week, a significant political crisis unfolded in Bolivia after soldiers led by Army Commander General Juan José Zúñiga engulfed the Bolivian government palace using armored vehicles, calling to “restore democracy and free political prisoners.” The attempted coup lasted only a few hours with leftist President Luis Arce quickly installing a new brass who called off the troops. However, the authenticity of the coup has come into question, with former president and Arce’s onetime mentor Evo Morales claiming it was staged in a bid to strengthen Arce's position, “Lucho lied and deceived the Bolivian people and the entire world with this kind of coup or self coup,” Morales said in a speech on Sunday, referring to Arce by his nickname.

Arce has rubbished these claims and insists the coup was a genuine attempt to stop his 3-year reign by foreign interests eyeing Bolivia's lithium wealth, echoing Morales’ earlier claims that previous unrest was triggered by U.S. interest in Bolivia’s lithium sector.

These interests seek our natural resources. Bolivia is the main world reserve of lithium, it also has rare earths that are what the planet needs today,” he said in a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El País

Unlocking Bolivia’s Vast Lithium Wealth

Bolivia is home to the world’s largest lithium deposits, accounting for 23% of global reserves. The country’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat is the largest of its kind with an estimated 21 million tons of lithium. It, therefore, comes as little surprise that several foreign companies including Germany’s ACI Systems,  Russia’s Uranium One Group, China’s EV battery giant CATL and TBEA Group, South Korean steel manufacturer POSCO and French mining multinational Eramet have shown interest in Bolivia's lithium sector. India's battery material producer Altmin is currently working with the Bolivian government to develop the technology of cathode materials for lithium batteries. However, there’s a dearth of concrete evidence linking foreign interests to the country’s political turmoil as Arce has claimed. Rather, technical issues are largely the reason why the South American nation has so far not succeeded in joining Chile and Argentina as one of the world’s lithium heavyweights despite the country being part of the famed Lithium Triangle.

Related: Sinopec Appraisal Well in South China Sea Yields High Oil and Gas Flows

To wit, Bolivia has managed to produce a paltry 1,400 tonnes of lithium since 2018, a figure dwarfed by 44,000 tonnes that Chile produced in 2023 alone. There’s a method to the madness though. Evaporation ponds work well enough in the salt flats of neighboring Chile and Argentina; unfortunately, they are less suited to Bolivia, where the brine has high levels of impurities and the salt flats have  to contend with a rainy season that lasts several months. And now the government in La Paz is betting the farm on a relatively new and novel extraction technology: Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE). The Bolivian state has invested more than $800 million in DLE over the past two-years, but has admitted that initial results have been disappointing. The government has also signed a flurry of DLE deals: Last year, the government signed $1.4 billion deal with China’s CBC and CATL for the construction of two DLE industrial plants with a combined capacity of 25,000 tonnes per year.

 Whereas DLE technologies vary, they are generally comparable to common household water softeners, and aim to extract ~90% of lithium in brine water vs. 50% using conventional ponds. 

Their biggest draw:  they can supply lithium for EV batteries literally in a matter of hours or days, way faster than 12-18 months needed to be filtered through in order to be able to extract lithium carbonate from water-intensive evaporation ponds and open-pit mines.

DLE also comes with the added bonus of offering ESG/sustainability benefits: DLE technologies are portable, able to recycle much of their fresh water and limit hydrochloric acid use.

"The world needs abundant, low-cost lithium to have an energy transition, and DLE has the potential to meet that goal," Ken Hoffman, co-head of the EV Battery Materials Research group at McKinsey & Co., has told Reuters.

The U.S. Geological Survey has provided estimates that DLE could unlock 70% of global reserves of the metal. Commercial scale DLE projects are expected to start coming online in 2025, and could supply 13% of global lithium supply by 2030, as per projections by Fastmarkets. The next few years will prove critical to the global lithium sector as the promise of DLE could finally see Bolivia become a lithium powerhouse at a time when Argentina is planning to sharply ramp up supply. We can expect to see a lot of smaller lithium producers go out of business if the Lithium Triangle reaches its full potential.


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By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 07 2024 said:
    It isn't beyond the United States to try to stage a coup d'etat in Bolivia to change the regime in order to get its hands on Bolivia's great reserves of Lithium accounting for 23% of global reserves and other rare earths.

    The United States has a history of regime change. One case in point is the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to change the regime of Saddam Hussein in order to get its hands on Iraq's oil wealth estimated at more than 400 billion barrels (bb) between proven and semi proven reserves.

    Another case in point is its failed attempts to change the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and install its puppet Juan Guaido as president so as to get its hands on Venezuela's' proven oil reserves of 304 bb, the biggest in the world.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Ex[pert

Leave a comment

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