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Extracted salt sits in piles at the Uyuni Salt Flat in Uyuni, Bolivia, on Nov. 18, 2009. The salt flat is also the world's largest untapped lithium reserve, containing enough of the lightest metal to make batteries for more than 4.8 billion electric cars. Photographer: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is one of the world's large untapped reserves of lithium, a key metal for batteries. Geologists say Afghanistan has similar lithium wealth, but as in Bolivia, politics likely will be the deciding factor in resource development.

Photograph by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky, Bloomberg/ Getty Images

By Henry J. Reske

for National Geographic News

Published June 16, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Somewhere in the trackless lands that make up much of Afghanistan (map), just to the right or left of the Old Silk Road, there are apparently huge caches of untapped wealth in the form of metal and stone prized in both the ancient world and the modern: gold, copper, and lapis lazuli, to name a few.

In recent days, the U.S. military and geologists working with the Pentagon have pointed to the deposits, whose value has been estimated at about a trillion dollars, as an elixir that promises to drastically alter the troubled Afghanistan economy. The portion of this underground store with perhaps the greatest promise, they suggest, are the deposits of lithium, the soft metal used in the small batteries that power ubiquitous electronics like cell phones, laptops, and iPods, and widely seen as the storage solution that will spur an electric car revolution.  Afghanistan could be transformed from a war-torn economy dependent on narcotics trade to the wellspring of a new energy future—the Saudi Arabia of lithium.

However, as with much about the country that is known as the Graveyard of Empires, all is not as it seems.

Afghanistan’s metal and mineral deposits—far from newfound—have been known and fantasized about for millennia. But the ability to harvest the riches does not currently exist. And, in the case of lithium, the market is uncertain.

A Long-Known Treasure

The Afghanistan Ministry of Mines reports on its website that the country has been known as a source of precious stones and minerals for thousands of years. However, it was not until the 1800s that systematic attempts, first by the British and then the Geological Survey of India, were undertaken to assess the resources.

“From the 19th Century onwards, various geological expeditions investigated areas along the main caravan routes and later along the arterial motor roads,” the Ministry  reports.

Efforts to map and tap the resources were launched sporadically in the 20th Century.

(Video: “Secret Treasure of Afghanistan”)

But these gambits were interrupted by continual conflict, including invasions by the Soviets in 1979, and by the United States and Great Britain in 2001, as well as by civil war and the Taliban siege. But by 2004 the British Geological Survey, the United States Geological Survey, and the Afghanistan Geological Survey and Ministry of Mines renewed efforts to evaluate the resources. The USGS said back in 2007 that it was clear Afghanistan had significant undiscovered resources.

Michael T. Klare, author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum, notes that Great Britain, India, and the Soviet Union had little success in tapping Afghanistan’s riches. And it’s not at all clear it will be any different this time around.

“In the past we were unable to get at it because of the constant warfare and lack of infrastructure such as railroads,” he said.

Klare suggests that China, a prodigious builder of railroads, may be the only candidate with the ability to undertake such a project, but it would face obstacles as daunting as the mountainous terrain. “They will probably be dealing with warlords who will want bribes,” he said. “There are no regulatory bodies, no rule of law. That is the likely outcome.” He said it could take decades for actual production of minerals to begin.

The development of lithium deposits is particularly problematic.

Certainly demand for lithium has skyrocketed with the proliferation of cell phones, portable computers, and other electronic devices that rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report notes that the use of lithium in cell phone batteries skyrocketed from 1.8 metric tons in 1996 to 170 metric tons in 2005.

And, as with oil, the United States flipped from producer to a prodigious importer dependent on foreign sources for more than half its lithium use. Chile (map) is the leading lithium producer in the world, and top source of imports for the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s latest market report on lithium.

(Related: “Lithium Rush”)

Chile’s neighbor to the north, Bolivia (map), also has huge stores of lithium, but these have not yet been developed. Foreign mining companies have been wary of President Evo Morales, who has nationalized many of Bolivia’s industries, and has made clear his intention to maintain state control of resources, even as he aims to develop the country’s lithium reserves.

Lithium’s Uncertain Future

Meanwhile, despite predictions of future surging demand for lithium, market conditions deteriorated during the economic slowdown, according to the USGS report. “Sales volumes for the major lithium producers were reported to be down between 15% and 42% by mid-2009,” the report said. “Consumption by lithium end-use markets for batteries, ceramics and glass, grease, and pharmaceuticals all decreased. The leading lithium producer in Chile announced it would lower its lithium prices by 20% in 2010.”

And although auto companies continue to explore the use of lithium energy storage for electric cars, the hybrids on the roads today continue to use nickel metal hydride batteries. Although most observers believe there will be a transition to the lighter, smaller and more efficient lithium batteries in transportation, there have been voices of skepticism. Former Honda engineer and hybrid expert John German said in an interview late last year with the HybridCars.com website that he believed lithium ion batteries were not yet able to deliver enough range to be the storage solution of choice in all-electric vehicles. German did think lithium had a role in hybrid gas-electric vehicles, like those already on the road. Former Bell Labs director Don Murphy, an expert on lithium ion batteries, drew similar conclusions in a speech in the Silicon Valley earlier this year; he said he thought that lithium battery technology would improve, but slowly.

But the debate on lithium batteries and cars may not matter to the citizens of Afghanistan.

Klare, professor of Peace and World Security Studies based at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, predicted that mineral wealth “would not do much good for the ordinary people of Afghanistan and probably will make things worse, not better.” The country has the classic conditions to fall victim to what has been called the “resource curse.”

“In very poor countries, when suddenly a new source of wealth is discovered, various factions fight to control that wealth, to keep it in their own hands and they use the military and the police to control it causing a perpetual state of corruption and violence,” Klare said.

This scenario has played out in Nigeria (map), with its oil, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (map), with its large supply of minerals. “The Congo,” Klare said, “has seen nothing but woe since the discoveries there.”

(Related: “To Find New Planets, Look for Lithium?”)

(See also: Afghanistan Quiz: Treasures and Troubles)

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