Dreaming of flamingos
Weeks later we arrive at Salar de Uyuni, a cold, desolate area 3600 km above sea level. When you’re getting out, do wear sunglasses. This is a hard, glittering salt plateau of 10.582 m2, no shade at all. No, you don’t hallucinate, these large flocks of flamingos aren’t imaginary: during rain season they breed at its banks. More than 400 km. south, at Salar de Atacama in the highlands of Chile, it’s the same scenery, albeit much smaller. Together, these two salt flats contain more than 70% of all lithium worldwide.

Although extracting lithium from salt lakes is a fairly straightforward process, there are environmental concerns as well as keeping up with rising demand. At Greenbushes – the Australian mine owned by Albemarle (49%) and Chinese Tianqi (51%) - one crushes hard rock ore; on the salt lakes in the South American triangle though, the Big Three extract lithium by evaporating brine.

Who profits?
No one knows if it is dream or nightmare for the nascent Bolivian industry: until recently no study has been done with regards to the environmental impacts and logistics. Authorities are yet to advise on the changes brought forward by the use of heavy vehicles, toxic residues and mayor power lines to process and transport lithium from Uyuni, a place in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile in Chile, the Washington Post found a striking contrast: faraway companies profit while communities that own the land struggle to pay for sewage systems, drinking water an heat for school. There are also protests in Argentina: the evaporation process for lithium not only requires vast amounts of water and chemicals, it also takes more than eighteen months to complete.

The situation on the Tibetan plateau – where extraordinary high concentrations of lithium have been found – is even the more worrisome. Lake Zhabuye (eastern Tibet, near Nepal) contains 2,46 Megatons of lithium, making it the third lithium-salt lake in the world. According to ‘Free Tibet’ and independent papers like The Tibet Post lithium processing leads to air, water and soil pollution, thereby provoking civil unrest and deaths. In 2010 Chinese EV manufacturer BYD (in which billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet hold shares) was granted a 20-year lease to the lithium salts of Lake Zhabuye. Tianqi has a 20% share in these mining activities.

‘But lithium-ion batteries can be 95% recycled’, you say while we’re driving back. That only applies when natural resources will become far more expensive than recycling. And that is, if you’re also taking the life cycle of young EVs into account, not the case. Not by far: according to the International Resource Panel the lithium recycling rate is less than one percent.

So you’re driving electric? Think twice. One day – when the supply chain will be certified like gold - you’d say ‘that’s very nice’.

Image: Salar de Atacama in Chile. By Francesco Mocellin. CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
 
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