In Business Battery Power

Over the past few years I’ve driven or been driven in several rechargeable electric cars. Auto manufacturers old and new are rushing to build substitutes for the internal combustion engine. Great hopes are being placed on batteries with this very light metal, lithium, at their core, much quicker to charge and discharge power (so they say) than heavy conventional batteries. So if plug–in cars catch on, lithium may be one of the vital raw materials for the auto revolution. And that’s how I found myself up at 12,000 feet in the vast salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in the Andes. The experts think that the difficult and poverty–stricken country of Bolivia holds 50 percent of the world’s total supplies of lithium, contained in vast hidden lakes of brine.

So the Bolivian government is building a pilot plant to learn how to get the lithium out of these salt flats, and then how to evaporate the brine and separate the precious metal from the salt. All this is raising great expectations in landlocked Bolivia. To outsiders it’s a very curious country, the second poorest state in South America after Guyana, a society riven by faultlines: great gaps between rich and poor, big geographical differences between the lush East and the towering Andes in the West, and sharp racial differences between successful former Europeans and a majority of indigenous peoples.

These last are the ones who voted the first indigenous president into office in 2006. Evo Morales has moved quickly to shift power in favour of the peoples he comes from. He has nationalised the commanding heights of the economy including oil and natural gas. And he has moved to break up big land estates.

The President has also pronounced that this new windfall raw material lithium should not be exploited by predator overseas capitalist multinationals, but developed by the state for the benefit of Bolivia.

This brings great pride to the local campaigner I heard from in the town nearest the deposits. Domitila Machaca told me how the people had marched hundreds of miles to the capital La Paz in the 1990s to block the foreign exploitation of the salt flats; she grinned toothfully when she praised the Morales tactics of homemade development of these riches.

Later, in La Paz, I put it to the mining minister Luis Echazu that Bolivia was taking a big risk if it really wants to be (as some have said) “the Saudi Arabia of Lithium”. “Oh no,” he replied: “We want to go further than that... we don’t want merely to process the metal, we want to make the batteries from it as well.”

But that will take money and expertise, which Bolivia will have to import, and multinational companies are wary of socialist countries with big state ambitions.

Meanwhile, back at the salt flats, the plant construction manager Marcello Castro told me that despite the hardships, he was very proud to be taking part in this great Bolivian Project. If the world takes to the electric car, and if lithium really is the metal that will power it, and if the Bolivians can deliver, we may soon be hearing quite a lot more about the great Uyuni salt flats.

(based on a recent From Our Own Correspondent)

Peter Day

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