The salt piles at Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, could shape the future of fuel.
Beneath the salt lies a solution of brine that contains about half the world's reserves of lithium, or enough to make batteries for more than 4.8 billion electric cars.
The first automobiles that use lithium-ion batteries are just coming onto the market now, but these light, powerful batteries already have fueled an electronic revolution, and are found in virtually every kind of small gadget from laptops to iPods.
Now, thanks in part to the rush of new electric car models, demand for lithium may increase by as much as 40 percent over the next four years, a report from investment firm Byron Capital Markets said. That's leading countries with reserves—including Bolivia—to explore ways to tap into this burgeoning market.
(Related: “Photos: Rev Up Your Motors, Electric Cars Zip Into View” and “Trucks Drive Toward Electric Power”)
Because of political pressure and a lack of resources for infrastructure, Bolivia only recently has taken the first steps at industrializing lithium production, opening a pilot facility earlier this year to extract the metal and convert it to commercially valuable lithium carbonate. Bolivian Mining Minister Jose Pimentel told Bloomberg News that the country should be able to export the product as early as January or February 2011.
However, the project has its doubters: Bolivian economist Juan Carlos Zuleta, who has studied the country's burgeoning lithium industry, believes that the factory won't have lithium to export for at least 14 months.