Project manager Marcelo Castro took us to the middle of the flats to see two small trial evaporation ponds. Extracting the lithium, he told us, is very simple: build huge evaporation ponds, pump up the briny water from below the salt crust and let the hot sun separate the lithium from the salts. The water evaporates at the rate of about an inch every four days, Castro explained. The process takes about two months.
Castro says he hopes to have the first production plant running by the end of the year -- a small test plant that will allow engineers to refine the process before the major production plant is built. As part of the first phase, evaporation ponds that cover six square miles will be built. For the production phase, ponds covering 60 square miles will be needed.
On the shore of the salt flats, construction of that first test plant is well underway. The science may be simple, but the site is not. The Uyuni Flats are so remote and so high that there is no electric power, no drinking water, no airport and only the most primitive of roads. Everything must be brought long distances.
Companies from around the world -- including Japan's Mitsubishi and South Korea's LG -- are eager to invest. But for now Bolivia is accepting only technical advice; the leftist government here is wary of foreign corporations. That is because for centuries this mountainous nation endowed with some of the richest resources on earth -- the largest silver mine in the world, an abundant supply of gas and oil -- has seen those resources taken by foreigners. What they have left behind is the poorest country in South America.
Castro said this venture is a chance for Bolivia to correct history. He told us this time Bolivia is determined to benefit from its natural riches.
While skeptics worry that the lithium project is too ambitious for a developing country like Bolivia, if the nation can successfully tap into its vast sea of salt, Bolivia could finally see some return from its riches, while offering the planet a path to the a greener future.