Bolivia’s Lithium-Powered Future

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The global demand for lithium, the lightweight metal used to make high-powered batteries for cell phones, laptops, and hybrid cars, is expected to triple in the next 15 years. Fifty to 70 percent of the world's supply of this critical mineral is contained in just one place -- Bolivia's Uyuni salt flats, shown above.

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The process of mining lithium takes about two months. Miners build evaporation ponds like the one shown here filled with briny water from the underground lake beneath the field. As the water evaporates in the hot sun, the lithium -- which is light enough to float in water -- is separated from the salt.

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Piled high: An excavator piles salt at the Uyuni Flats on Oct. 10. It is estimated that Uyumi's reserves of lithium might be as high as 100 million tons. Some are already calling Bolivia the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

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Foreign companies including Mitsubishi and LG have expressed interest in investing in the mining operation, but President Evo Morales's leftist government is wary of foreign corporations and has thus far only accepted technical advice. Above, a pilot lithium plant under construction in Uyumi.

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A chemical engineer poses with plastic containers holding lithium brine. The Morales government has invested $6 million in the Uyuni plant and hopes to have it operational by the end of this year.

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The salt flats also contain a major nature reserve with flamingos, cacti, geysers, hot springs, and volcanoes. Above, a flock of flamingos wades in a pool in the reserve on Oct. 7.

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About 60,000 tourists visit Uyuni each year. One popular attraction are the hot springs at Agua Brava, shown here.

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An indigenous woman rides with her children in the town of Uyuni on Oct. 9. Bolivia is hoping not to repeat the mistakes of its history. Despite having the world's largest silver mine and large reserves of oil and gas, most of the profits have gone to foreigners and Bolivia has been left the poorest country in Latin America.

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A lithium-ion battery cell designed for use in Nissan's new generation of electric vehicles. The car market is likely to drive much of the increased demand for lithium in the coming years as governments, including the United States, push manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency.

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Bolivia hopes its lithium treasure can pull it up from the bottom rungs of the global economy, but as countries throughout the developing world have learned the hard way, resource wealth can just as easily lead to corruption, mismanagement, and more misery for the world's neediest people. Lithium may very well be the secret to reducing the world's disastrous dependence on oil, but that doesn't mean a new "resource curse" can't take its place. As David Rothkopf warns in FP's September/October issue, "whatever technologies take hold, demand will emerge for the scarce commodities on which they depend … and we know well where that can lead."

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