Bolivia gears up for soaring lithium demand

Employees work at a lithium extraction complex in Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia. (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

Bolivia gears up for soaring lithium demand

SALAR DE UYUNI, Bolivia: Over 3,600 meters above sea level on the blinding white plain of the world’s largest salt flat, landlocked Bolivia is dramatically ramping up production of lithium to cope with soaring global demand for the prized electric-battery metal.

Bolivia, among the poorest countries in South America, sits on one of the world’s largest lithium reserves, at the Salar de Uyuni — or Uyuni Salt Flats — ready to take full advantage in the coming age of the electric car.

But while it sits at the apex of South America’s “lithium triangle,” along with Chile and Argentina, Bolivia has not had the capacity to produce the metal on a commercial scale.

That will change when its Llipi plant comes online in 2020.

The factory, guarded by the army because of the metal’s value, will have an annual production capacity of 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate, project manager Marco Antonio Condoretty told AFP.

State company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), established by the government of President Evo Morales in 2008 to exploit lithium in the salt flats, aims to make Bolivia the fourth-largest producer by 2021.

Morales, a leftist and former coca farmer, is counting on lithium to serve as the economic engine that lifts his country out of poverty.

YLB teamed up last year with German company ACI Systems to help develop the Uyuni complex.

It’s part of a plan to form strategic partnerships that “bring their technology and guarantee outlets,” said Condoretty.

The joint venture will manufacture electric-vehicle batteries in Bolivia for the growing European market.

China’s Xinjiang TBEA Group came on board with YLB in another joint venture in February to help extract lithium from Bolivia’s two other salt flats, in Coipasa and Pastos Grandes.

Bolivia said earlier this year that Uyuni alone likely has at least 21 million metric tons of lithium, more than double previous estimates.

Until now, the Salar de Uyuni has been a major tourist attraction, and environmentalists have raised concerns about the landscape being irreparably altered by exploiting the lithium deposits underneath.

But Condoretty insisted that lithium exploitation would use “clean technologies” and affect only about 3 percent of the salt flat.

China is the world’s biggest consumer of lithium, with 63 percent of the market, according to Ingred Garces, professor of engineering at Chile’s Antofagasta University.

With its voracious appetite for lithium, the Asian giant has positioned itself at the center of the world’s main deposits of the metal.

By 2025, China will need 800,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles.

China’s Tianqui Lithium Corp. took a 24 percent stake in Chilean producer SQM last December, placing itself inside the “Lithium Triangle,” which has 80 percent of the globe’s known deposits.

Worldwide production grew 23 percent in 2018 to more than 85,000 tons.

 

 


Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

Updated 06 June 2020

Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

  • Suitors wage backstage battle to rescue debt-stricken Canadian circus icon
  • Among the potential bidders is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who fouded the acrobatic troupe in 1984

MONTREAL: Its shows canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an already heavily indebted Cirque du Soleil’s fight for survival has invited an intense backstage battle to try to save the Canadian cultural icon.

High on a list of potential suitors is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who founded the acrobatic troupe in 1984 but later sold it.

“Its revival will have to be done at the right price. And not at all costs,” said the 60-year-old, determined not to see his creation sold to private interests.

The billionaire clown said after “careful consideration,” he decided “with a great team” to pursue a bid, but offered no details.

Under his leadership, the Cirque had set up big tops in more than 300 cities around the world, delighting audiences with contemporary circus acts set to music but without the usual trappings of lions, elephants and bears.

Then the pandemic hit, forcing the company in March to cancel 44 shows worldwide, from Las Vegas to Tel Aviv, Moscow to Melbourne, and lay off 4,679 acrobats and technicians, or 95 percent of its workforce.

Hurtling toward bankruptcy, the global entertainment giant and pride of Canada commissioned a bank in early May to examine its options, including a possible sale.

Meanwhile, shareholders ponied up $50 million in bridge financing for its “short-term liquidity needs.”

Laliberte, the first clown to rocket to the International Space Station in 2009, ceded control of the Cirque for $1 billion in 2015.

It has since fallen into the hands of American investment firm TPG Capital (55 percent stake) and China’s Fosun (25 percent), which also owns Club Med and Thomas Cook travel. The Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) retains the last 20 percent.

The institutional investor, which manages public pension plans and insurance programs in Quebec, bought Laliberte’s last remaining 10 percent stake in the business in February, just before the pandemic.

Since 2015, the Cirque has embarked on costly acquisitions and renovations of permanent performance halls, while its creative spirit waned, according to critics in the Quebec press.

Meanwhile, it piled on more than $1 billion in debt.

Fearing that the Cirque would be “sold to foreign interests,” the Quebec government recently offered it a conditional loan of $200 million to help relaunch its shows as restrictions on large gatherings start to be eased worldwide.

But the agreement in principle is conditional on the Cirque headquarters remaining in Montreal and the province being allowed to buy US and Chinese stakes in the company at an unspecified time in the future, “at market value” and with “probably a local partner,” said Quebec Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon.

“The state does not want to operate the circus, but the circus is too important to Quebec (to leave it to foreigners),” he said.

In addition to Laliberte, other prospective buyers include Quebecor, the telecoms and media giant of tycoon Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose opening lowball bid was outright rejected.

“It is essentially the value and reputation of the brand” that has piqued interest in the company, says Michel Magnan, corporate governance chair at Concordia University in Montreal.

But “as long as there are restrictions on gatherings of people, the future is not very rosy” for the Cirque, he said.

Several challenges await, according to Magnan.

“There were a lot of people working in all of these shows. Where are they now? What are they doing? How are they doing? In what shape are they, what state of mind?” he said.

“The more time passes, the more this expertise risks evaporating.”

Small consolation: The Cirque resumed its performances on Wednesday in Hangzhou, China, five months after a coronavirus outbreak in the city.