The Lithium Rush  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Technology Review has a look at Bolivia, where the Andes contains "a vast salt flat that may shape the future of transportation" - The Lithium Rush

Nearly four kilometers above sea level in the Bolivian Andes lies the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. But there is more to this ­surreal, moonlike landscape than meets the eye. Flowing in salt-water ­channels beneath the surface is the world's largest supply of lithium--and, possibly, the future of transportation. Lithium is the key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that will power the electric vehicles that will soon be rolling off production lines worldwide. Demand for the metal is expected to double in the next 10 years, and Bolivia, with an untapped resource estimated at nine million tons by the U.S. Geological Survey, is being called a potential "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

4 comments

Interesting - with that said I'm curious about the impacts of lithium mining. There was a recent article in the NY Times about rare earth element mining in China, which is here. Similarly, rare earths are used for green technologies. Hopefully Bolivia will utilize extractive methods that cause less harm while providing a vital resource.

It's pretty benign from what I can tell. Scape it up.

Also, it looks like significant lithium could come from geothermal waste water at the Salton Sea (California) location.

While the picture may show that it is merely scraped of the surface...

"The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's lithium reserves,[2] but that lithium is not being extracted yet. The large area, clear skies and exceptional surface flatness make the Salar ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of the Earth observation satellites.[3][4][5][6][7] The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos."

So it is the brine beneath the lake that has the resource, the scrapings on the surface are for salt production. We should always check these things out I believe...

As a follow on from that topic... many readers may not know that Bolivia actually used to have a coastal province.

During the War of the Pacific, Chile took over the Pacific Coast province of Bolivia. This was a war over the nitrate deposits of the Atacama desert (near the Salar de Uyuni).

Chile was backed in this enterprise by Britain... the major importer of nitrate.

Nitrate of course is used as fertilizer, but also for gunpowder and explosives.

The demonizing of the Bolivian leadership in the British press of the time has a familiar echo.

Shortly after this war, chemist and physicist William Crookes expounded that in the absence of ‘new lands’ on which to expand the production of wheat “[a]ll England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat”, unless a means could be found to fix atmospheric nitrogen: the 'Chilean' nitrate was projected to last only 30 more years.

Enter Haber and Bosch.

Now, instead of 1 billion people we have 6 - civilized or not... Ah the golden years of empire and enlightened gentlemanly science! ;-)

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