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  • Bolivia's salt flats contains vast quantities of lithium.

    Bolivia's salt flats contains vast quantities of lithium. | Photo: EFE

Published 11 August 2016

Bolivia rejected foreign partners to help develop the fledgling industry, opting instead to go it alone.

Bolivia is starting to ramp up exports of lithium, one of its most valuable commodities, to the Chinese market.

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The first 10 tons of lithium carbonate were extracted from a pilot production plant in the famous salt flats in southwest Bolivia. The shipment was valued at just US$70,000 but authorities hope this figure will multiply into millions of dollars by 2020.

The manager of the plant, former Minister Alberto Echazu, says China immediately requested another 16 tons. "This shows that we are on the right path," said Echazu.

The Andean nation is quietly investing millions of dollars in increasing production of its most valuable mineral. The state is building new laboratories, pilot plants and wells in Salar de Uyuni in the department of Potosi. Improvements are also being made to infrastructure, railway lines and electricity plants to enhance production.

More than half of the world's lithium—a valuable metal used to make smart phones and electric car batteries—is concentrated there as well as other precious minerals ripe for export. Lithium also has pharmaceutical and other applications.

President Evo Morales believes the metal is ripe for export and the government is investing US$925 million in the development of the lithium industry by 2019. The government estimates that Bolivia stores around 70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves—up to 100 million tons. The U.S. Geological Survey makes a more cautious estimate of around 9 million metric tons. 

Bolivia rejected foreign partners to help develop the fledgling industry, opting instead to go it alone. However, Morales says he is willing to work with Chile and Argentina, the two other dominant players in the so called ''lithium triangle'' to develop fresh business opportunities worldwide.

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