Bolivia makes first shipment of lithium to China – by Henry Sanderson and Andres Schipani (Financial Times – August 17, 2016)

Cargo worth $70,000 marks symbolic step in ambition to set global benchmark for lightest metal

London and Bogotá – Bolivia has made progress in its aim to become the world’s biggest exporter of lithium with its first shipment of the world’s lightest metal to China. But the impoverished South American country still faces challenges if it is to set the global benchmark for the raw material used in smartphone and electric car batteries.

With a price tag of $70,000, the shipment of almost 10 tonnes of lithium carbonate has been seen by the market as more symbolic than profitable.

Bolivia’s salt flats hold the world’s largest potential resources of lithium and demand has surged in the past five years, with prices spiking over the past 12 months amid a supply shortage. Almost all electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, use lithium-ion batteries because of their light weight and higher energy density.

However, Bolivia trails its neighbour Chile, as well as Australia, which have become the largest suppliers to battery makers in Asia. Argentina, another neighbour, is rapidly investing in its lithium industry.

The country’s estimated 9m tonnes of potential resources far exceed those of the US, China and Australia, according to the US Geological Survey. But Bolivia’s lithium deposits are more costly because they have three times the level of magnesium than Chile, which makes them more difficult to refine. The country’s salt flats also have a lower evaporation rate, according to analysts.

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