The Bolivian government plans to plough $925m into the lithium industry by 2019. President Evo Morales dreams of building a high-tech future for his country, based on manufacturing smartphone and electric car batteries. However, outsiders claim he needs foreign investment, and so far this hasn’t been particularly forthcoming. What’s more, there’s no guarantee of lucrative markets like China being reliant on lithium in the future. Prof Martin Bertau, director of the Institute of Technical Chemistry at TU Bergakademie in Freiberg, Germany, thinks lithium batterypowered cars may only be a short-term solution for China, while another potentially greener technology based on methanol fuel cells ramps up. “If direct methanol fuel cell cars emerge [in China], lithium electrical vehicles may lose their significance overnight,” he says. “It is this scenario that truly will not be helpful for Bolivia.”
There also remains uncertainty over the environmental damage that could be caused by widespread lithium mining on the salt flat, with accusations flying back and forth between mining and environmental organisations. According to Martinez, all mining activities at Salar de Uyuni must comply with state regulations to reduce their environmental impact. The Bolivian National Evaporite Resources Authority has switched from lime-based to sulphate-based technology because this produces less sludge, although research on the impacts of sulphate in this environment is scarce.
LEFT: A young boy amuses himself by playing football while his dad makes bricks for building salt hotels