Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats Hold Promise of Greener Future

The car we traveled in for 10 bone-rattling hours runs on gas, but if the story you're about to read comes true, one day fairly soon this car will be obsolete.

And that's why our ABC News team made the long, dusty and sometimes muddy trek through the Andes Mountains of Bolivia to one of the most remote places on earth, the Uyuni Salt Flats, a place that holds the promise of a greener future for the planet.

Salt Flats
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After hours of treeless mountain landscape, interrupted by the occasional llama herd, we arrive at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. It sits two miles above sea level. It looks like a vast snow-covered lake, but the white surface stretching to the horizon in every direction is salt, not snow. These flats, covering 5,000 square miles, make up the largest salt lake in the world.

Watch "Nightline" THURSDAY at 11:35 p.m. ET to see the Uyuni Salt Flats

For generations desperately poor salt gatherers have worked in the blinding glare of this sea of white. It is a climate of harsh extremes: freezing at night, hot during the day. Most cover their faces with masks and protective glasses to avoid blindness and sunburn. It is back-breaking labor. For their efforts they earn a few dollars a day.

VIDEO: Lithium to for electric car batteries in Bolivia
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CLICK HERE to see photos of Bolivia's Salt Flats

Apart from a few tourist hotels -- the most memorable ones built with blocks of salt -- this is one place the world has overlooked. But that is changing. Because on a distant shore of the salt flat, the Bolivian government is in the first phase of building what it hopes will be the largest lithium production plant in the world.

Lithium? It is the lightest metal on earth. We all have it around us at home and work. Lithium is what makes the batteries in our cell phones and laptops lighter and longer-lasting than the ones used a generation ago. But those lithium batteries contain barely an ounce of the metal. The new generation of electric cars that will come to market in the next few years, like the Chevy Volt, will also run on lithium batteries. But each car battery will need 25 to 30 pounds of lithium.

Demand for lithium is expected to triple in the next 15 years, according to Matthew Nordan, president of Lux Research in New York, which tracks emerging technologies.

"There's no way that's going to be supplied without accessing Bolivia's reserves," Nordan said. "So in many ways an electric vehicle future -- what's envisioned by venture capitalists, by the Obama administration, by startup companies -- and batteries depends on Bolivia. Bolivia has the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of lithium."

It's estimated that the Uyuni Flats contain somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the world's lithium reserves.

Bolivia's Bold Experiment: Lithium Extraction Plant in Testing Phase

"It's like a lake. A lake under the salt," said Belgian scientist Guilermo Roelants as we walked on the solid surface of the salt flats. Roelants is serving as a technical advisor to the Bolivian government on this project.

We squatted at a pool of water that has seeped to the surface. Roelants explained that the lithium is not in the hardened cap, it is a few feet below, in the vast sea of briny water underneath. "It's very special metal. It's not like traditional metals that you know. It's very soft metal. It's the lightest metal in the world."

Lithium is so light that it floats in water.

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