Demand for lithium, long used in small amounts in mood-stabilizing drugs and thermonuclear weapons, has climbed as makers of batteries for BlackBerrys and other electronic devices use the mineral. But the automotive industry holds the biggest untapped potential for lithium, analysts say. Since it weighs less than nickel, also used in batteries, it would allow electric cars to store more energy and drive longer distances.
With governments, including the Obama administration, seeking to increase fuel efficiency and reduce their dependence on imported oil, private companies are focusing their attention on this desolate corner of the Andes [in Bolivia], where Quechua-speaking Indians subsist on the remains of an ancient inland sea by bartering the salt they carry out on llama caravans.
The U.S. Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could eventually be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and just 410,000 in the United States. Independent geologists estimate that Bolivia might have even more lithium at Uyuni and its other salt deserts, though high altitudes could make producing the mineral difficult.
Amid such potential, foreigners seeking to tap Bolivia's lithium reserves must navigate the policies of [President Evo] Morales, 49, who has clashed repeatedly with American, European and even South American investors. Morales shocked neighboring Brazil, with whose government he is on friendly terms, by nationalizing its natural gas projects here in 2006 and seeking a sharp rise in prices. He carried out his latest nationalization before the vote on the Constitution, sending soldiers to occupy the operations of British oil giant BP.
At the La Paz headquarters of Comibol, the state agency that oversees mining projects, Morales's vision of combining socialism with advocacy for Bolivia's Indians is prominently on display.