French battery maker Bollore in race to develop Bolivia's lithium

Published: Feb 19,2009 16:52:40


Evo Morales wants lithium industry in Bolivia as part of a deal to develop the country's huge lithium deposits.

French conglomerate Bollore plans to submit a plan to develop Bolivia's Lake Uyuni lithium deposit, one of the world's largest, a spokesman for leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales said on Tuesday.

Several international groups, including Bollore (BOLL.PA: Quote), South Korea's LG Group and Japan's Mitsubishi and Sumitomo are in a race to tap Uyuni's lithium riches.

Bolivia says the winner will be the company that presents a viable plan to develop a full-fledged lithium industry in the landlocked South American country, going far beyond building a plant.

"We've agreed that the company will make a proposal to the Bolivian government regarding research, (lithium) production and even the manufacturing of cars in our country," presidential spokesman Ivan Canelas told the state-run television network in a phone interview from France.

Canelas, accompanying leftist Morales since Saturday in a trip to Russia and France, said the government would only allow foreign firms to extract lithium from Uyuni if they agree to set up a lithium industry to produce batteries "and even cars" in the impoverished South American country.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates half of the world's lithium reserves are in Bolivia and the largest deposit in the country is at Uyuni, the world's biggest salt lake.

Last year, Morales laid the cornerstone of a $6 million pilot plant at Uyuni, a tourist hotspot high in the Andes at some 12,100 feet (3,700 meters) above sea level, and the government hopes it will lead to construction of a $250 million lithium facility.

Rechargeable lithium batteries are used to power laptops, hybrid vehicles and cell phones, and demand is seen rocketing if car makers develop electric cars on a major scale.

Bollore has developed a lithium battery that can power an electric car at a speed of up to 125 km/hr with a range of 250 kilometers, and it has a joint venture with Italian car-maker Pininfarina for the production of electric cars.

In France Morales was given the opportunity to drive Bollore's Bluecar, a bubble-shaped prototype fitted with the company's lithium battery, Canelas said.

Since taking office three years ago, Morales increased state participation in energy and mining and has raised taxes on foreign companies to increase state revenue from the country's natural resources.

Stretched between distant Andean peaks like a shimmering white carpet, Uyuni is the world's biggest salt lake and home to pink flamingos, 1,000-year-old cacti, rare hummingbirds and hotels built entirely from blocks of salt.

The government has said the extraction of lithium from Uyuni should have only minimal environmental impact. (Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; editing by Pav Jordan)

By Eduardo Garcia

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