Lithium Dreams: Can Bolivia Become the Saudi Arabia of the Electric Car Era?

There was a time when it was possible to estimate the size of the total US thermonuclear arsenal by measuring the ratio of Li-6 to Li-7 in commercial sources and knowing the amount of the metal in the economy. (Li-6 had been removed to make hydrogen bombs.) Now the lightest metal is prominent in other kinds of energy schemes. If automobiles are going to be powered by electricity, virtually everyone expects that lithium-based batteries will play a big role. The Nissan Leaf, which is supposed to reach US markets later this year will be followed by GM's Volt, and both are going to store energy in lithium ion batteries whose chemistry is the same as those used in laptop computers. Making millions of electric cars, each with about 4 kg of lithium in its battery, will require lots and lots of the metal, and no country has more of it than Bolivia. This is a potential bonanza for one of the world's poor countries, but the problem is that Bolivia is so poor that it virtually devoid of the infrastructure necessary to exploit its potential wealth (pun intended). Its government is rightly determined to maintain control of their asset, most of which is in the bed of an almost-dry lake, Salara de Uyuni. The chemistry of lithium is likely to be much more straightforward than the politics and economics of lithium. Lawrence Wright describes the non-chemical aspects in depth. It is a very interesting story, whose earliest chapters are just beginning to be written.

Pick Attribution: 

Lawrence Wright

Publication Date: 
Monday, March 22, 2010