Bolivia Chooses China’s CATL to Help Kickstart Lithium Production

Bolivia has given authorization to a consortium led by Chinese battery major CATL to help develop its large but largely untapped lithium resources after a lengthy bidding process that involved companies from the United States and Russia. The deal, announced in La Paz, will see the consortium, called CBC, partner on direct lithium extraction from Bolivia’s Uyuni and Oruro salt flats. CBC, which also includes Chinese mining giant CMOC, will additionally develop two lithium plants in the country, with an aim of producing up. to 25,000 tonnes annually of battery grade lithium carbonate.

Bolivia has been looking to unlock its huge potential as a lithium supplier for batteries that are primarily needed for manufacturing of electric vehicles (EVs). Still, projects to mine the battery metal take many years and doubts remain around the direct extraction technology being used.

Bolivia is home to the world’s largest lithium resources at 21 million tonnes, but the country has almost no industrial production or commercially viable reserves. Bolivia, together with Argentina and Chile, sits atop the so-called “lithium triangle” which contains more than half the world’s resources of the white metal.

Bolivian President Arce said CBC would invest over $1 billion in the project’s first stage, including in infrastructure projects.

Arce added that talks were ongoing for potential partnerships with other foreign firms. The companies who have remained in the race include US firm Lilac Solutions, Russia’s Uranium One Group and three other Chinese bidders.

CATL is the world’s largest EV battery manufacturer but does not currently produce any lithium, although it has invested in a number of projects in its home country.

“Today begins the era of industrialization of Bolivian lithium,” Arce said, adding that there was “no time to lose” in developing the metal. The price of battery-grade lithium reached close to $85,000 a tonne toward the end of 2022.

Energy minister Molina said the move showed there were “sovereign alternatives to the privatization models of lithium exploitation.” Bolivia’s state controlled lithium company YLB is set supervise and take a central role in the project.

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