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Sustainable Energy

The Lithium Rush

In the Bolivian Andes lies a vast salt flat that may shape the future of transportation.

  • by Antonio Regalado
  • December 21, 2009
  • Nearly four kilometers above sea level in the Bolivian Andes lies the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. But there is more to this ­surreal, moonlike landscape than meets the eye. Flowing in salt-water ­channels beneath the surface is the world’s largest supply of lithium–and, possibly, the future of transportation. Lithium is the key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that will power the electric vehicles that will soon be rolling off production lines worldwide. Demand for the metal is expected to double in the next 10 years, and Bolivia, with an untapped resource estimated at nine million tons by the U.S. Geological Survey, is being called a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

    The 10,000-square-kilometer Uyuni salt flat (salar in Spanish) extends to the horizon in all directions. These days it’s a breeding ground for pink flamingos and a draw for curious tourists, but in prehistoric times it was once an immense lake. Water falling in the Andes still flows here, and as it works its way over volcanic rocks toward the salar, it picks up minerals, including magnesium and lithium. Baked by the sun, the water becomes a mineral-rich brine that flows under the salt desert’s crusty surface.
Although the lithium here could be worth billions, the Bolivian government is just beginning to exploit the vast resource. Workers operate a perforation drill to probe for brine up to 50 meters beneath the surface.
Where lithium concentrations are highest, the brine is pumped into evaporation pools. The sun evaporates water at an average rate of seven millimeters a day on the salar, gradually concentrating the lithium.
Transferring the brine through a series of pools will concentrate it further and eliminate some impurities, a process that takes more than a year.
This story is part of our January/February 2010 Issue
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Here, local politicians and members of the public get a tour of the site. Patriotic passions are running high in Bolivia, where companies from Europe and Asia have arrived in hopes of extracting Uyuni’s lithium. So far, negotiations are deadlocked, and President Evo Morales warns that he won’t let companies “pillage” his country’s resources the way Spanish conquistadors once carried off silver from its mines. Although Bolivia needs foreign expertise and investment to fully exploit the lithium, Morales insists that his government must stay in control. “That’s not a very attractive business model for a Western company,” says Eric Norris, commercial director of FMC Lithium, which produces lithium in Argentina.
A pilot facility is under construction at the edge of the salt flat, where technicians use buckets to measure evaporation rates.
Overhead fly the Bolivian flag (left) and the Wiphala flag representing indigenous rights, a major concern of Bolivia’s socialist government.
Because Bolivia’s technical infrastructure is limited, many brine samples have been sent to South Korea, France, and Japan for analysis. Brine tested so far has high levels of impurities such as magnesium and borate, which researchers will have to find ways to remove.
Eventually, Bolivia’s government hopes to build a full-scale industrial plant near the flat, where lithium brine will be mixed with lime and soda ash to produce lithium carbonate, the fine white powder that’s a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. Above, at a laboratory in La Paz, a technician holds a sample of pure lithium carbonate.
Until very recently, industry on the flat was limited to harvesting the salt on its surface–like the piles of ordinary table salt that local workers are loading in trucks to haul away. But with batteries expected to eat up 40 percent of the world’s lithium output by 2020, this remote region is now a focus of intense global interest.
“If we don’t get lithium from this place, we cannot produce our cars,” says Oji Baba, a Japanese executive with Mitsubishi. In the U.S., anticipation is high for the forthcoming Chevy Volt, which will run for 40 miles on battery power alone. But will the Volt ever run on Bolivian lithium? “For the next five years, automotive won’t make a dent in lithium supplies,” says Mark Verbrugge, director of the Chemical Sciences and Materials Systems Laboratory at GM. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. What’s certain, says ­Verbrugge, is that the percentage of vehicles eventually powered by batteries “could be enormous.”
EXTRA IMAGES: An Andean peak looms over the Salar de Uyuni.
The vast salt flat stretches to the horizon.
A Bolivian engineer surveys the scene.
One of many lithium-bearing brine pools that now dot the flat.
Workers prepare for drilling.
The perforation drill is used to access the brine under the surface.
The sun sets on the Salar de Uyuni.

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