Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats Hold Promise of Greener Future

Uyuni Salt Flats holds most of world's lithium reserve and key to green future.

August 5, 2009, 9:48 AM

UYUNI SALT FLATS, Bolivia <br>Aug. 5, 2009&#151; -- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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