"THE GROUND approaching the salt flats in Chile’s Atacama desert is pockmarked
with white crystals. Underneath sit vast deposits of lithium salts, the ore for
the soft, light metal used to make high-capacity batteries. Pumps run by SQM, a
Chilean company that is the world’s leading producer of the stuff, hum as they
pull up mineral-rich brine. In evaporation ponds, the liquid forms a patchwork
of emerald and blue on the blindingly-bright crust.
The operation is the start of a supply chain that ends in the lithium batteries
that power electric vehicles (EVs). The global EV fleet will grow at least
tenfold by 2030, to 250m, according to the International Energy Agency, a
forecaster. Since 2018 SQM’s annual lithium output has tripled to 180,000
tonnes, a quarter of the global total, and will probably rise to 210,000 tonnes
Latin America is no stranger to supplying the world with raw materials, but it
could be on the verge of a boom. Three forces are pushing the region to become
this century’s commodity superpower. The green transition is increasing demand
for metals and minerals that Latin America has in large supply, as well as the
renewable energy to process them. The region already supplies more than a third
of the world’s copper, used in wiring and wind turbines, and half of its
silver, a component of solar panels. Its fertile land produces enough grain,
animals, coffee and sugar to help feed a growing global population.
Geopolitical tensions between the United States and China are causing countries
to look fondly upon investing in a relatively neutral region.
But Latin America’s experience with raw materials is as chequered as it is
long. Argentina owes its name to the Latin for the silver shipped from its
ports after it was extracted by conquistadors in Bolivia and Peru; Brazil’s
descends from the brazilwood tree, exploited by Europeans in the 16th century.
The countries’ vast riches subsequently helped spark coups, populist takeovers,
crime and corruption. Meanwhile the region’s economies remain unsophisticated,
its GDP per person is worth a quarter of that of the United States, and
inequality is large. Can Latin America reap the rewards this time around?"
Via Future Crunch
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics