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Lithium: What Does the So-called 'White Gold' Represent for Latin America?

LatinAmerican Post made a brief analysis of the importance of lithium in the region's economy, society and environment, taking into account that South America alone has 56% of the world's reserves of this precious element.

Brine pools of a lithium mine

Photo: Reuters - Ivan Alvarado

LatinAmerican Post | Christopher Ramírez

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"White gold" is how the world defines lithium, a chemical element considered to be the lightest metal and solid element in nature. However, this does not say much about its functions and importance to the world.

According to the mining company 'Solutions for Human Development' (SQM), whose activity is based in northern Chile, lithium has several applications at the industrial level, being the most used metal in recent years in the creation of "batteries, ceramic glass, lubricating greases, air conditioning", among other products already rooted in the world's popular culture.
"Due to their energy density and lack of "memory effect", rechargeable lithium-ion and lithium polymer batteries are the most efficient power source for cell phones, laptops and other portable electronic devices. Batteries for new electric vehicle (EV, HEV) models are also based on lithium compounds," explains SQM in a statement.

Thus, lithium can be considered as the most important element in the evolution towards a much cleaner and renewable energy; and in the case of Latin America, it represents not only a step towards energy cleanliness but also an option to improve its economy.

The region is, as confirmed by the governments of countries such as Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the most important in the world in terms of lithium reserves, as it is believed that at least 56% of the total amount of this element on the planet is found in South America. This, of course, has been seen as an opportunity for economic and industrial growth in this part of the world, since in the last 12 months alone its price increased from 9,000 to 75,000 dollars per ton, which represents an increase of 833 % in the last year.

The salvation of Latin America?

COVID-19 generated a pandemic that not only affected people's health, but also the normal functioning of industries in general, and lithium was no exception. During the crisis caused by the spread of this disease, the extraction numbers of the precious soft metal dropped considerably, while its demand increased on a large scale.

This has meant that, in the area of electric vehicles alone, the cost of lithium batteries is set to be one of the fastest growing in the entire automotive industry. According to research firm E Source, between 2023 and 2026, EV (electric vehicle) batteries could see a price increase of 22%, i.e. from $128 per kilowatt-hour to $138 per kilowatt-hour.

This represents, of course, a hope for the battered Latin American economy that looks favorably on lithium extraction as a way to become a power, not only in the continent but also in the world. In addition, the current demand forces industries to hire and train new labor to meet global needs, in the midst of a sustainable energy revolution, which also means a strengthening in the number of jobs, especially in the South American cone.

With this in mind, a few days ago the creation of the Latin American Chamber of Lithium was made official, which seeks to "promote, develop and optimize the industrialization processes of lithium mineral and its derivatives", as well as to "promote and support regional and community initiatives for the industrialization" of this element.
In short, the idea of this new organization is to be able to create a beneficial relationship with lithium extraction, based on "compliance with the laws, regulations and conditions for prospecting, exploration, exploitation, commercialization and industrialization of the mineral and its derivatives".

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Blessing or curse?

However, in the midst of the economic and social bonanza, the truth is that two major threats are brewing around it: one political and the other environmental.

Regarding the former, the way in which lithium extraction should be viewed in the region is still a matter of debate. While Bolivia and Mexico defend at all costs that the extraction processes should be dominated only by the State, arguing that the precious metal is a public utility, other countries such as Chile and Argentina see private participation as a great strategy which, of course, also brings enormous profits for individuals. However, this is something that the Latin American Chamber of Lithium wants to help regulate.

However, the environmental component may be perhaps the most important drawback in the midst of lithium extraction, as large amounts of water are required to separate the metal from the clays to which it is sedimented.

The most recent case, which is directly related to this issue, is that of Sonora, Mexico, where the company Bacanora Lithium is developing a megaproject of some 100,000 hectares in which it intends to extract some 243 million tons of lithium located in the so-called Sierra Madre Occidental.

However, according to several studies, including one by Mining Technology, these extraction processes in what is considered to be the largest mine in the world, will not last more than 20 years, although the environmental effects do not have a time limit.

"In order to filter and extract the clays, a significant amount of water will be used," explained Daniel García, a researcher at the State University of Sonora, in a conversation with the EFE news agency.

Of course, this in turn also has serious consequences for the fauna and flora of the region being extracted. In addition, it could also affect human health, as only 15 milligrams of lithium can be toxic to a person.

"If there is lithium contamination in the aquifers or rivers, this lithium can reach the communities and if it does, we will have toxicology and environmental health problems," concluded the expert.