Lithium in Germany and Bolivia

A Changing Substance: The Relation of Humans and Lithium in Germany and Bolivia

The vision of a post-fossil era requires a technological change that affects the present and the future: While humans create the future, the future at the same time forms human life and the actions of the present. Currently, various substances and materials appear as alternative energy sources or energy storage to fossil fuels. Additionally, the human handling of those new substances brings about new global interrelations as well as locally different forms of knowledge, meanings, practices, places, things and identities. Central substances and materials for a „Big Transformation“ are not just "there", but they lead a social life in time and space. They constitute the socio-cultural on different "stations" of their global value chains and by means of those things and commodities for which they are used.

This dimension of social embedding of substances is being examined in the ethnological research project on the basis of the case study lithium, starting from the concept of “Material Histories”, which was developed at the Environmental Science Center (Böschen et al. 2004; Reller et al. 2013) and the theory of the “Social Life of Things” (Appadurai 1986). Thus, it opens up those socio-cultural dimensions of lithium, which would remain locked in a purely substantial-technical observation of lithium.

Lithium – Engine for Change

The light metal lithium captures more and more attention on its way into a post-fossil future, which is reflected in price increases and a steadily growing demand for lithium on the global market. Lithium is a key element for portable energy storage. In the form of lithium ion batteries it is used in small electronic devices, in cameras, mobile phones, laptops and storage battery tools. Above all, it seems to hold a lot of potential for the electrification of mobility, because with lithium the weight of a battery, the basic module for all vehicles, can be reduced to a minimum.

The research project localizes the global lithium-market by comparing Germany and Bolivia. Both countries follow political and economic strategies for the future, in which lithium plays a central role. On the one hand, the effect of lithium in socio-cultural change in Germany and Bolivia is examined. The substance raises different expectations and imaginations of the future, which themselves have an effect on the present. In Germany, lithium opens up options for technological change and post-fossil mobility – images that refer to a future use of the substance. In contrast, in Bolivia, hopes are pinned on the first stage of the substance – mining, industrialization, hopes for modernization, decolonization and “development”.

On the other hand the research project focuses on the materiality of the substance itself, by analyzing its changes in human practices along its value chain: Human-lithium relations are based on the materiality of the substance.
Lithium constitutes – as salt at the origin of the resource, as light metal or immaterial in the form of data in the area of research – different socio-cultural forms, which themselves propagate back on the actors. On a local level the human occupation with lithium in Germany and Bolivia produces different repertoires of action, things, identities, social relations, conflicts, etc.

The Social Life of Lithium

It is the aim of this project to examine existing and emerging human-lithium relations along the value change of the substance – from the raw material and its (intended) mining in Bolivia, to processing and further to research and development of lithium ion batteries in laboratories in Germany. In regards to the relevance of lithium for electromobility, these stages depict the current social life of the substance lithium.


Appadurai, A. (1986): Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value. In: The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective. A. Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-63.

Böschen, S.; Reller, A.; Soentgen, J. (2004): Stoffgeschichten – eine neue Perspektive für eine transdisziplinäre Umweltforschung. GAIA, 13(1), 19-25.

Reller, A.; Marschall, L.; /Meissner, S; Schmidt, C. (2013): Ressourcenstrategien: Eine Einführung in den nachhaltigen Umgang mit Rohstoffen. Darmstadt: WBG.

Project team:

Dr. Katrin Vogel,

Phone: 0821 598-3490

Duration of project: 07/2013-2016