"For the first time in decades, Germany has secured direct access to important, non-native raw materials through the joint venture," says Wolfgang Schmutz. He is head of ACI Systems Alemania (ACISA). On Wednesday, a contract was signed in Berlin with the state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. For more than 70 years, 40,000 to 50,000 tons of lithium hydroxide are to be extracted annually from the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt lake, which lies far away in the Bolivian highlands.
Despite its secluded location at an altitude of 3600 meters, it is a bustling place. Almost only Chinese people work here. The workers live in a container settlement near the Salar de Uyuni that is also at an altitude of 3600 meters. One company has already secured access to a huge potassium chloride plant for fertilizers with a production volume of 350,000 tons per year.
As part of the German-Bolivian joint venture, the first plant in Salar de Uyuni will produce about 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year. ACISA also hopes to win the contract to produce up to 50,000 tons of lithium hydroxide. Both lithium compounds are used in batteries for electric cars, whereby the proportion of lithium in lithium hydroxide is somewhat higher. With a quantity of 50,000 tons per year, batteries can be produced for around one million electric cars with a range of over 300 kilometers.
By 2023, VW plans to spend around 44 billion euros on future technologies. Audi plans to spend 14 billion euros on the development of electric cars, digitization, and autonomous driving. But without lithium there would be no batteries. This is why the price per ton has doubled since 2016 to well over 13,000 US dollars at times. The German government intends to provide up to one billion euros in research funding for the promotion of battery cell production. And the lithium for the batteries could come from Uyuni in the future.
There are huge deposits in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia: because they could even be larger than expected, many Lithium stocks on the stock exchanges had come under strong pressure. But that is likely to change soon. "If you look at the plans of VW, Audi, and China, for example, the amount of lithium is certainly not too small," says Heiner Marx, CEO of the Thuringian company K-Utec, which has its origins in potash and rock salt mining in East Germany and plans projects for the salt processing industry worldwide.
The race for lithium is therefore in full swing. Bolivian President Morales, however, wants to make sure that a large part of sales remains in Bolivia. In addition, requirements have been changed several times and investment conditions are not exactly stable. Due to a lack of money, the plans were significantly downscaled. "They wanted a white elephant, the result is now just a white mouse," says a connoisseur of the plans. So it remains to be seen whether a treasure really lies dormant in the salt lake for German companies.