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China strengthens lithium alliance with Bolivia through extraction plant initiative

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By Colin Hay - 
China Bolivia lithium extraction plant CATL CBC

Despite lithium prices crashing and a number of leading battery metals companies cutting back their budgets, a Chinese consortium (CBC) has signed a significant agreement with the Bolivian government to develop a pilot plant in the country’s south-west.

Made up of CATL, Brunp and CMOC, the consortium will build a pilot plant at an estimated cost of $135 million to directly extract and process lithium at Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat region.

“The lithium era is an era that we have to take advantage of,” said Bolivian president Luis Arce in a speech during the official signing ceremony.

“Unfortunately in the past we did not achieve the necessary speed in this area but the national government has made the clear decision that this issue of lithium industrialisation is a central element in politics,” he added.

The lithium extraction plant is expected to have an initial annual production capacity of 2,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate.

Global lithium leaders

President Arce said the Chinese consortium features three companies that are global leaders in the lithium field and known for their “high technological level”.

He also revealed that Bolivia could launch a new international tender regarding its rich lithium resources.

“As a country, we want to participate in the entire production chain, not just in mining,” he said.

The new agreement follows a previous deal with the Bolivian state-owned lithium company in January 2023, when CBC agreed to invest more than $1.5 billion to start processing Bolivian lithium with the installation of two industrial direct lithium extraction plants.

CBC representative Qinghua Zhou said the pilot plant has important strategic significance for both parties.

Critical supply chain

CATL chair and general manager Dr Robin Zeng told the 2024 World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland that a sustainable and responsible supply chain is an essential part of decarbonising the automotive ecosystem which the electric vehicle (EV) transition requires.

During the session “Rolling out EVs: A Marathon or a Sprint?”, Dr Zeng said innovation in battery technology is central to helping the world transition towards a clean energy future.

He said CATL remains focused on providing long-range electric driving options for consumers and is continuously innovating to achieve greater results.

“We launched the condensed battery with an energy density of 500 watt-hours/kilogram, a 70 or 80 percent increase over current nickel cobalt manganese batteries.”

“We are focused on the aviation applications for condensed batteries, and as production scales up, we can reduce the cost and use the battery in cars, too.”

He said battery technology breakthroughs enable business model innovation and therefore a sustainable EV transition with multiple applications.

“In the V2G (vehicle to grid) scenario, an EV battery can also be a distributed mobile energy storage unit, enabling EV owners to make a profit by charging during off-peak hours and selling electricity to the power grid during peak hours.”

“You do not need to drive your car and the car will make money for you. But it requires longer cycle life for the batteries. To meet this demand, we have developed battery technology for a cycle life of 18,000 cycles,” Dr Zeng added.

“A sustainable supply chain is also essential for a successful transition to e-mobility.”

Carbon-neutral ambitions

In April 2023, CATL announced a plan to achieve carbon-neutrality in all its battery manufacturing facilities by 2025 and across its battery supply chain by 2035.

Dr Zeng highlighted the difficulty of achieving this goal and emphasised the role of renewable energy in the supply chain.

“That’s why when we are selecting suppliers we are always asking them, ‘where are you located’ and ‘do you have green energy’ etc.’’