Lithium: The Driving Force of the 21st Century

Matjaz Krivic

2016 - Ongoing

Following the tracks of a game changing mineral


Batteries are catalysts of massive changes in our time, both industrial and social. The boom of battery driven cars, phones and robots is causing the market for its core component lithium to soar, creating a modern-day gold rush with geo-strategic consequences. Story follows the value chain of this rare mineral, from investment and prospecting in the US, to mining in Bolivia, production of batteries and cars in China and to the small oil state Norway leading the way to electrify all of its transportation – cars, buses, planes and boats. This is the story of how lithium is changing societies and just possibly might have a role in saving our planet. But at a high cost.

As the need for climate protection gets stronger, the development of cleaner energy is gaining momentum. At the same time, a key part of the solution, lithium, and the production of the material, is not without its own hazards and sins. Lithium pollution is an increasing problem wherever it is mined, and there also are threats to local communities that are totally taken control over by mining companies. The supply of lithium is not fast enough to accommodate the demand, and signs of a bottleneck effect are already manifesting, with Chinese, Australian and American corporations buying lithium mines in countries around the world to ensure reserves for the future.


The story is talking about how the future is unraveling in front of our eyes. It is raising awareness about how the transition from fossil to electric actually is happening, with all its wonderful possibilities. But also how it’s affecting geo politics and how clean energy also comes with a price and some risks.

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  • Manuel and his family are minig for salt traditional since he was a child.
    Him and the rest of the local people living around Salar de Uyuni will get the most effected by the lithium mining in the area which is using most of their fresh water.
    They are fearful of the new plant's impact on the local population, whose survival is dependent almost entirely on agriculture that needs water and there's less of it with each passing year.
    What can 'the white gold' ultimately bring Bolivia? The lithium market is rapidly growing. Countries all over the world – including China and Germany – are proclaiming their “no-more-diesel-cars” policies on regular basis.
    Does that mean Bolivia is entering the scrum at an ideal time?
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia 2016

  • And it's not only the streets and bays or highways and high waves; it's also the air. If everything goes as planned, most of internal flights in Norway will be fully electric by 2030.
    The market for lithium-ion batteries will, no doubt, explode in coming years and the e-mobility will step out of the sci-fi zone.
    Avinor’s only plane is a fully electric ultra light plane manufactured by Slovenian company Pipistrel.
    Oslo, Norway 2018

  • Patrick Brindle and his team of geologist only entered the lithium business last January. Patrick spent the past eighteen years in the coal industry, it was quite a transition for him, he told me in North Carolina, where Piedmont Lithium is currently developing number of projects.
    Geologists Ian Riddle is checking their latest drilling results form their locations posts nearby.
    Charlotte, USA 2018

  • This extremely remote region is one of the coldest in the world. For this reason, number of Chinese electric-car manufacturers had chosen it as their winter testing site for their new prototype electric cars, like this prototype EV of Chinese Slovenian joint venture APG Elaphe. Here in the middle of nowhere, the Chinese engineers are taking the future for a test spin.
    Heihe, China 2017

  • Salt miners from a Tavua village are loading their truck with salt.
    Local people will get the most effected by the lithium mining in the area.
    According to Bolivian law the lithium revenues should be equally distributed - the local community is entitled to a 15% cut. The rest goes to the regional government in Potosi and to the central authorities.
    Since 2016 none of it was paid to local communities.
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia 2017

  • Given the steep rise in city population and pollution all over the world, many Chinese electric-car manufacturers have decided to focus entirely on urban traffic. At the moment, more than 200 electric-vehicle manufacturers are operating in China. Although China is not providing subsidies for new Tesla cars, it still remains among the most popular one.
    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.
    Chengdu, China 2017

  • Many US companies are intensively and aggressively seeking out fresh deposits of lithium all over the globe including USA.
    A global lithium fever started in 2016 and hasn't let up.
    Mr. Andrew Suckling Executive Chairman of lithium investment firm Candence Minerals at his NY city office in Soho.
    NYC, USA 2018

  • The EV (r)evolution is not a lonely phenomena. In a country, surrounded by sea and with a strong maritime tradition, the rise of electric veichles is being closely followed by the the development of fully electric ferries, passengers ship, fishing vessels and service boats. It will be impossible to enter a Norwegian fjord with a fossil fuel driven vessel after 2026. Norway is writing a very electric ferry-tale.
    A battery room on an electric ferry where one of the two 20 tonnes lithium ion batteries is being mounted.
    Omastrand, Norway 2018

  • An aerial view of the polluted city Harbin waking up in the cold morning.
    At the moment, some 120 million cars are jostling on the Chinese roads. By 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology predicts an additional 80 million will have entered the fray.
    Combined with all the industry and too many coal power plants most of the cities in China are very or most of the time too polluted.
    Harbin, China 2017

  • Enormous lithium evaporation pools near the 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, a lithium process plant near by.
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia 2016

  • Soundon New Energy obtains its lithium from China and Chile. The Chinese electric-car and lithium-battery markets are closed to the point of being openly protectionist, which causes the foreign battery manufacturers no end of trouble. China has long embarked on a conquering rampage for resources from South America, Africa to Australia.
    Production line at SNE, a huge lithium ion battery company with futuristic premises at the outskirts of the polluted city of Xiangtan.
    Xiangtan, China 2017

  • In oil & natural gas super rich Norway, a country of strong welfare state and a growing feeling of a collective guilt, people, as well as economy, are willing to give something back to the generous and horribly exploited nature. At the same time, the politicians have recognized the possibility and the need for an u-turn and did it with a consensus. The electrification of the public and private transport in Norway is an upside-down process, where all the major players share the same goal.
    Dinner at the Zero CO2 Maritime conference in Bergen.
    Bergen, Norway 2018

  • Salt deposits on the edge of a huge lithium evaporation pool at the only operating lithium mine in USA - Albemarle’s Clayton Valley, Silver Peak mine in Nevada, USA.
    Nevada USA 2018

  • In the USA a global lithium fever started back in 2016 and hasn't let up.
    Luke is a young local driller working for a small family bussines (David Gibson Contractor L.L.C.) at a Railroad valley salar in Nevada. They are drilling a new hole for a “3PL”, a Canadian lithium mining company that has that has been prospecting the area. They have claimed preety much the whole salar, expecting to find big deposits of lithium.
    Nevada, USA 2018

  • While most of the world still sees the possibility of electric mobility and zero CO2 emissions as a science-fiction scenario, it is already an existing reality in Norway.
    In October 2018, more electric vehicles (EV's) were sold in Norway than gasoline&diesel cars combined. This is a historical milestone: technological, political, social, economical and, of course, environmental milestone. After 2025, it will become impossible to buy a fossil fuel driven car in Norway.
    Two of the most common electric cars in Norway: “Nissan Leaf” and first Norwegian electric car, a popular urban two seater called “Buddy”.
    Oslo, Norway 2018

  • A heated room which is full of lithium carbonate, or “desert gold,” as workers at Planta Llipi refer to it.
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia 2016

  • In 2016 Llipi factory employed 250 workers, most of them manual labourers. Very few lithium processing experts are on board, seeing their drastic shortage in the country. And so it has fallen on as few as three people to run the entire production line.
    Mr. Lino Fita is in charge of Comibol’s potassium extraction 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, Bolivia 2016

  • ZD is one of the first Chinese manufacturers to penetrate the demanding and heavily regulated European market. Working with their Italian business partners who had designed the vehicles, ZD had gained a beach-head in Italy five years ago.
    It is one of the smaller Chinese EV companies that produces great small two-seater urban electric cars.
    They assembles its own lithium battery packs. Its lithium carbonate is wholly “home-grown”, and its battery cells are purchased on the open market. »There is never enough of them! Never enough! There's a huge battle for resources.« says Mr. Lee head of international marketing and sales at the ZD company.
    Linyi County, China 2017

  • In 2017 more than 300K EV’s had been sold in China – 3x as many as in the USA.
    ZD’s Model 2 assembly line in one of therir three factories in Linyi County.
    ZD also assembles its own lithium battery packs. Its lithium carbonate is wholly “home-grown”, and its battery cells are purchased on the open market. »There is never enough of them! Never enough! There's a huge battle for resources.« says Mr. Lee head of international marketing and sales at the ZD company.
    Linyi County, China 2017

  • As the need for effective climate protection gets stronger, the development of cleaner energy is gaining momentum.
    Many renewable energy power plants are being built around the world, trying to get us all away from our long dependance on fossil fuelled power plants, toward a sustainable green energy ones.
    Fuelling our electric devices with this kind of clean renewable green energy would make a great contribution to our planet and its climate.
    A Cresent Dune Solar Energy Project is located near Tonopah, Nevada. It is one of the first utility-scale concentrating solar power plant with a central tower and molten salt energy technology.
    Tonopah, Nevada USA 2018