Digging for electricity
The Bolivian salt plains hide vast reserves of lithium. With demand for rechargeable batteries set to soar, could this be the site of a new gold rush?
Could the lithium mines of Bolivia be the site of the next ‘gold rush’?
H igh up in the Andean Mountains in Bolivia is a vast expanse of white desert, the world’s largest salt flat: Salar de Uyuni. Stretching 160km from west to east, its cracked surface heals during the rainy season to form a giant natural mirror. Until recently, this extraordinary environment had kept all but migrating flamingos, salt rakers and the most intrepid of tourists at bay. Just below the surface, however, is something that the mining industry is itching to get its hands on: 10 million tonnes of lithium. This soft, silvery metal is the stuff of the rechargeable batteries that power our smartphones and laptops.
In the so- called ‘ lithium triangle’ covering the borders between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, lithium is extracted from brine beneath the crusts of salt plains. These three South American countries alone hold 56 per cent of the world’s lithium stores. Bolivia’s lithium is thought to have leached from the surrounding Andes into a prehistoric lake that dried to form the present- day salt flat. It contains more lithium than even the most productive flat, Chile’s Salar de Atacama. The Bolivian government is shelling out millions to help unlock the potential of this huge, untapped resource, but whether it all pays off may depend on the future of the electric car industry.