UN­CER­TAIN TIMES

Focus-Science and Technology - - Earth -

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

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