Lithium Dreams Can Bolivia become the Saudi Arabia of the electric-car era? by Lawrence Wright Read
March 22, 2010 – New York Times
In southern Bolivia, there is a mountain called Cerro Rico—“the hill of wealth.” It is a pale, bald rock, crisscrossed with dirt roads that climb the slope like shoelaces. More than four thousand mining tunnels have so thoroughly riddled its interior that the mountain is in danger of collapse. Its base is ringed with slums that spill into the old city of Potosí, a World Heritage site. Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, recently told me that he and his countrymen see Potosí as “a symbol of plunder, of exploitation, of humiliation.” The city represents a might-have-been Bolivia: a country that had capitalized on its astounding mineral wealth to become a major industrial power. Such a Bolivia could easily have been imagined in 1611, when Potosí was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a hundred and eighty thousand inhabitants—roughly the size of London at the time. Although Potosí began as a mining town, with the saloons and gaming houses that accompany men on the frontier, it soon had magnificent churches and theatres, and more than a dozen dance academies. From the middle of the sixteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth, half the silver produced in the New World came from Cerro Rico. Carlos Mesa, a historian who served as Bolivia’s President from 2003 to 2005, told me, “It was said throughout the Spanish empire, ‘This is worth a Potosí,’ when speaking of luck or riches.” Potosí is now one of the poorest places in what has long been one of the poorest countries in South America.
Across the divide of the industrial revolution, there is another city whose promise of greatness now lies in ruins: Detroit. Even before the Curved Dash Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line, in 1901, becoming the first mass-produced American car, Detroit was a showplace of labor, its huge factories producing iron, copper, freight cars, ships, pharmaceuticals, and beer. Following Oldsmobile’s lead, carmakers such as Ford, Packard, and Cadillac transformed the American economy. But Detroit’s triumph was remarkably short-lived. The city is half the size it was fifty years ago. Two of the Big Three carmakers, General Motors and Chrysler, went bankrupt in 2009, and all of them have cut their workforces drastically. Unemployment in Detroit is at fifteen per cent; the murder rate is the fourth highest in the country; and about a third of its citizens live in poverty. An estimated seventy thousand structures—houses, churches, factories, even skyscrapers—stand empty, many of them vandalized or burned. Parts of town are being farmed. Like Bolivia, Detroit is hoping for a second chance. And both of them are looking to a treasure that could revive their fortunes, and, incidentally, lead the world to a cleaner environment. That treasure is lithium.
The lightest of any solid element, lithium has, until now, played a modest role in industry. Silvery in color, and softer than lead, it has been used mainly as an alloy of aluminum, a base for automobile grease, and in the production of glass and ceramics. It is so unstable that it is never found in its pure form in nature. Lithium floats on water—or, rather, it skitters wildly about, trailing a vapor cloud of hydrogen, until it dissolves. Oddly, given its frantically reactive nature, lithium has powerful tranquillizing effects; it has long been used as a drug to treat mood disorders, especially mania. In the nineteen-fifties, the U.S. government created a market for lithium when an isotope of the metal turned out to be useful in building thermonuclear weapons. But demand for lithium, which has corrosive qualities, along with a tendency to spontaneously ignite, otherwise languished. That suddenly changed with the proliferation of cell phones and laptop computers; lithium is ideal for making lightweight batteries. Now, with the emergence of electric cars, lithium could challenge petroleum as the dominant fuel of the future. And nearly half the world’s known resources are buried beneath vast salt flats in southwestern Bolivia, the largest of which is called the Salar de Uyuni. Bolivians have begun to speak of their country becoming “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
Yet it’s not clear that Bolivia is capable of making money off its trove. Morales, who is closely aligned with the populist socialism of Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, is prone to revolutionary declarations: “Either capitalism dies or else Planet Earth dies.” Such rhetoric tends to scare away the kind of foreign investment that would facilitate the development of the Salar. Then there is Bolivia’s lack of infrastructure: electricity, water, and gas are sparsely distributed, and few of the country’s roads are paved. Before Bolivia can hope to exploit a twenty-first-century fuel, it must first develop the rudiments of a twentieth-century economy.
The Salar is approached from a single-lane dirt road that winds down from the Andes, twisting through bright canyons and dry plains where llamas and vicuñas graze. Flamingos high-step through shallow ponds. Until recently, glaciers covered Bolivia’s mountaintops, but global warming has caused much of the ice to recede, diminishing the country’s water supply. Just outside Uyuni, a mud-brick town perched on the perimeter of the salt flat, the scrubby landscape fills with litter, and colorful plastic shopping bags flutter in the branches of queñua trees.
Entering the town, you encounter a welcoming committee of baying dogs. The local airport has been closed for years. Uyuni, which has a population of ten thousand, is only two hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, but for more than a century Bolivia’s access to the sea has been blocked by its historic enemy, Chile. The country is landlocked and isolated—“an island surrounded by land,” as Fernando Molina, a journalist and one of Bolivia’s best-known intellectuals, described it to me. “A third of the country is above three thousand metres, and the rest lies below, at a really strong pitch. Our capacity to transport things is terrible. The geography makes it hard to produce anything, because we can’t move it.”