Lithium, The Driving Force of THe 21st Century

Matjaz Krivic

2016 - Ongoing

Bolivia; China

South America and Asia are becoming increasingly connected. Not only politically, but also through the lightest of the minerals, lithium. The market for lithium carbonate is booming, lithium being one of the main constituents of all battery powered electronic gadgets, electric cars, solar panels, robotics, etc. Bolivia has the largest confirmed lithium reserves in the world. China, on the other hand, is a leading global producer as well as a rapidly growing market for the lithium-battery driven products and e-mobility. But the world will soon be short of its supply, which in turn can cause serious geo-strategic consequences.

The photographic project follows the path from the mining of this raw material at Salar de Uyuni high up in the Bolivian Andes, to the manufacturing of the final products (e.g. e-vehicles and lithium ion batteries) around China. Images will try to disclose the future which is already unravelling in front of our eyes. The story is as timely as ever, as the demand for lithium-ion batteries is ever-increasing and the supply is not fast enough to accommodate the demand. Signs of the bottleneck effect are already manifesting, with Chinese, Australian and American corporations buying lithium mines in various countries around the world to ensure the reserves for the future.

As the need for effective climate protection strategies gets stronger, the development of cleaner energy is gaining its momentum. Lithium plays a major role in this story, bringing us to the doorstep of a true green (r)evolution, a necessary transition from dirty inefficient fossil fuel vehicles to clean, environmental friendly, electric vehicles with little or no effect on the climate. With raising awareness about these issues, this story could contribute to positive public and political support, which is opposed by the powerful fossil fuel lobbies.

The aim of this project is to document the entire chain from the mining of lithium, the production of batteries and battery driven devices, green energy power plants that will power these devices up to the use of the final products around the world. In 2018, the plan would be to start in Australia, which is the largest producer (and consequently largest polluter) of lithium carbonate in the world, continuing with work in the heart of Europe, where Serbia holds the biggest reserve of Lithium in the region and finally extending the story to Norway, a country that is taking a large step toward e-mobility and which has become the major per-capita user of electric vehicles.

Connecting a series of photographic essays about lithium mining, green power plant, production of electric vehicles, and their consumption, the whole story could be distributed on multiple levels. I will continue to publish the story in various media outlets (e.g. Le Figaro Magazine, Spiegel Online, Aftenposten Innsikt, Vrij, MO* Magazine, Sunday Herald, Terra Mater, Forbes Magazine, Caravan Magazine, Delo) where the first part of the story was already published. Multimedia screenings and photo exhibitions will be shown in various galleries and at festivals such as Kaunas, FotoDok, Visa pour l’image, DiaFest, FotoKlub Maribor, HeadOn.

The following partnerships have already been established:

- Le Figaro (Mr. Cyril Drouhet) which is already supporting my work and Gacilly photo festival where my work will be exhibited in June 2018.

- LensCulture (Mr. Alexander Strecker) with whom we are currently preparing a video interview about the whole project.

- I am also in the process of discussing the publication of a printed book with Keher Verlag, who has shown interest in the idea of producing the first photo book about lithium.

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  • An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The Rio Grande delta is mostly dry because of the Comibol’s lithium mining and processing in the area. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Salt miners from a Tavua village are loading their truck with salt.
    They are the people that will get the most effected by the lithium mining in the area, which is using most of their water. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Manuel and his family are traditionaly minig for salt at “Salar de Uyuni” since he was a child.
    They are the people that will get the most effected by the lithium mining in the area, which is using most of their water. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Desert energy as workers call it - Enormous lithium pools near Llipi production plant.
    Brine is pumped in to this large evaporation pools on the southern edge”Salar de Uyuni”, where it is left to evaporate for many months. It is then processed at Comibol’s Planta Llipi near by. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Final stage of the Lithium carbonate production process. At the time I was there only two Comibol persons at Llipi were qualified to do it. Salar de Uyuni, Llipi, Bolivia

  • Mr. Lino Fita is in charge of Comibol’s potassium production plant on the salt flats of “Salar de Uyuni”.
    The brine here is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expencive to extract lithium. Salar de Uyuni, Llipi, Bolivia

  • A heated room which is full of lithium carbonate, or “desert gold,” as workers at Planta Llipi refer to it. Salar de Uyuni, Llipi, Bolivia

  • The Bolivian company Corporación Minera de Bolivia, or Comibol, tests brine at a site located near the lithium evaporation pools. Spots are carved out in the middle of the salt flat. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Vehicle tracks scar the beautiful salt flats of “Salar de Uyuni”.
    “Open Veins of Latin America” as Eduardo Galeano used to describe in his book…
    »Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others - the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.«
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • A grave in the middle of the salt flat, near the lithium pools. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

  • Winter testing site on the frozen Amur river on the border between China and Russia where APG Elaphe and 65 other Chinese companies are testing their new prototype electric cars. Heihe, China

  • Workers are packing battery cells at the production line in “Soundon New Energy”, a huge lithium ion battery factory in Xiangtan, China.

  • Cleaning process before entering a Soundon New Energy production line - a huge lithium ion battery company in Xiangtan, China.

  • Workers during their afternoon rest are playing with their smarthphones, at a Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium ion battery company in Xiangtan, China.

  • A Chinese APG bussiness man after his meeting at the luxury hotel in Shanghai, China.

  • A Chinese couple with their polution masks on their faces, is passing by the popular Tesla store at a “Tai Koo Li” shopping centre in Chengdu, China.

  • ZD a Chinese E car company’s production line in Linyi county. Cars are made for Italy, where ZD has a joint venture company Share&Go - a car sharing in Milano Italy. Linyi County, China

  • A female worker at ZD facilities in Linyi is pooling a Model 2 chasie through the factory.
    ZD is a Chinese E-car company producing E-cars for Italy, where they have a joint venture company Share&Go - a car sharing in Milano Italy. Linyi County, China

  • ZD’s Model 2 at Linyi county production plant waiting to be shipped to Milano, Italy for the “Share&Go” car sharing service. Linyi County, China

  • Open veins of China. Cars during the evening rush hour jamming and polluting the center of Shanghai at a huge intersection. Shanghai, China