The Solution

By Power, Matthew | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Solution


Power, Matthew, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Bolivia's Lithium Dreams

AT SOME POINT in their twenty-one-hour sojourn in the Sea of Tranquility, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong turned from snapping pictures and gathering moon rocks to gaze up at the swirling blue marble of Earth, shining in the blackness a quarter million miles away. A bit below the Equator a cloudless patch revealed the reddish-brown pattern of a mountain range - the Andes, presumably - and nestled in their midst, winking like a coin in a well, was a brilliant patch of white. Armstrong at first mistook the spot for a glacier, but later realized that what he had seen was the last remnant of a vast inland sea, evaporated away over millennia into the world's largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, spreading at twelve thousand feet along the edge of the Bolivian Altiplano. Today, the Salar's almost perfect flatness is used by NASA to calibrate the orbital altitude of earth observation satellites, making them precise enough to measure the retreat of polar ice to within an inch. Years after the moon landing, Armstrong was said to have visited Bolivia, and made his way to the Salar, to visit the same place he had pinpointed from the Moon. True or not, this is a story that tour guides in Uyuni love to tell.

The Salar de Uyuni is as remote and unlikely a place as can be imagined for the world to seek its salvation, or for a host of postmodern ills to find their cure. But that's just what the newspapers here and the politicians in Bolivia are saying. We want clean energy, guiltless mobility, days upon days of talk time. And the solution to all the things that hold us back and slow us down, that make us feel unsatisfied with ourselves and our endeavors, is waiting just beneath the surface of the salt. The 4,086-square-mile Salar - flat as a billiard table, twice the size of Rhode Island - hides a great treasure. The billions of gallons of mineral-rich brine just below its crystalline surface hold in solution perhaps half the world's supply of lithium.

Lithium carbonate, a powdery white mineral produced by evaporating and processing the Salar's brine, is the raw material for lithium- ion batteries, a key power source in modern technology from cell phones to electric cars. Lithium is lightweight and capable of storing energy far better than other battery technologies, and demand for it has risen tenfold in the last decade. Auto -industry analysts estimate that within a decade perhaps six million electric cars will be manufactured annually, and at the moment, they are all set to depend on lithium batteries. Bolivian President Evo Morales is lithium's greatest champion; he sees the resource as Bolivia's chance to redeem centuries of economic plunder at the hands of outsiders. Morales is an indigenous Aymara and former coca farmer who rose to power in 2005 on a platform of broad social reform, overwhelmingly backed by Bolivia's impoverished indigenous majority and a coalition of social movements. Morales has put great hope in Bolivia's lithium. If his vision can be borne out, the poorest country in the Americas will vault clear over the twentieth century and into the ranks of industrialized nations. With a market price for high-grade lithium carbonate of almost six thousand dollars a metric ton (or "tonne"), Bolivia would stand to make billions.

But Morales foresees far more than the mere selling of raw materials. He dreams of the value added: Bolivian-made lithium-ion batteries will power smart phones and laptops across the world, and a country where barely 5 percent of the roads are paved will one day produce lithium -run electric cars for export. The US Geological Survey has estimated that the Salar has 5.4 million tonnes of lithium carbonate - enough, by some calculations, to convert the entire global vehicle fleet to electric and supply them for two hundred years. If Bolivia's lithium dreams were made manifest, the era of oil and American economic and political dominance might finally come to an end, and perhaps even global warming could be averted.

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