They look like solar panels in the desert. In a way, they are—brine pools drying in the sun at the Soquimich lithium mine in northern Chile. This site in the Atacama Desert, known as the driest desert in the world, is also the largest lithium deposit currently in production. (See related photos: "Pictures: Cars Capture Solar Energy in the Chilean Desert.")
Thanks to extraction and processing here, Chile is the world's leading supplier of lithium, accounting for 35 percent of production last year. Neighboring Bolivia has even larger lithium resources than Chile, but has yet to exploit them. The high Andean region where these two South American nations meet with Argentina (currently the world's number 4 producer) is known as the "lithium triangle," holding 60 percent of the world's supply of the element, a place that has the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of an age driven by electric power.
Lithium is a key ingredient in glass, pharmaceutical, and grease manufacturing, but it's the light, silvery element's role in rechargeable battery production that has captured the world's attention. If current trends for electric cars, computers, and mobile devices continue, global demand for lithium could double by 2020, said Andrew Young, an industry analyst who advises hedge funds. "I think potential demand is tremendous, but it's a matter of working through technical issues," Young said.
Lithium-ion batteries offer high power and low weight in a single package, but the same chemistry that lends them their appeal increases the risk of overheating if not managed properly. The most notorious recent case of suspected thermal runaway involved the breakthrough aircraft, the Boeing Dreamliner 787, which was grounded in January after one battery overheated on a runway in Boston and another caught fire and forced a landing in Japan. (See related story: "Reshaping Flight for Fuel Efficiency: Five Technologies on the Runway.") The Dreamliner is expected to take to the skies again soon, but the incident touched off a new wave of concern over the stability of lithium batteries as a foundation for a new energy future.