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Salt 'n Power: A First Look at the Lithium Flats of Bolivia [Slide Show]

The lithium needed for the batteries that power everything from our laptops to future electric cars may come more than ever from South America's vast salt flats

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GRAY GOLD:

At the end, all that is left of this industrial process is lithium carbonate salt. Prices for this key component of lithium ion batteries have jumped from $300 to $3,000 per metric ton within five years, a trend expected to continue if electric cars become widespread.....[ More ]

LITHIUM EXTRACTION:

Large-scale lithium extraction is already under way in Atacama, Chile, the world's largest current supplier of "gray gold". Bolivia, however, hopes to surpass its neighbor soon.....[ More ]

TOURISM?:

Although the first signs of tourism are emerging in the area, local operators at Uyuni fear that lithium extraction will have an irreversible negative impact on Bolivia's natural heritage if no environmental risk assessment is carried out.....[ More ]

BOOSTING EVAPORATION:

Another experimental site in the middle of the salar conducts research into optimizing the rate of evaporation.....[ More ]

PLANNING PROGRESS:

Large evaporation ponds are laid out, which will soon be filled with brine. Within a few years the dazzling salt pan here will be replaced with ponds, channels, piping, pumping systems and trucks.....[ More ]

BRINE ANALYSIS:

Maritza Valleros, a metallurgist at the plant, is responsible for the brine analysis. Here she measures the rate of evaporation. One of the challenges of concentrating and extracting the lithium will be to neutralize the large amounts of magnesium in the brine.....[ More ]

SALT SAVIOR?:

Plant manager Marcello Castro plunges his hands into the brine, which he believes represents the key to progress and the industrialization of Bolivia.....[ More ]

LITHIUM SOUP:

Under the thin crust, at no more than 20 centimeters deep, is found the blue-green brine rich in minerals, among them the precious lithium.....[ More ]

SALT EXPLOITATION:

The first pilot plant for a new kind of salt exploitation stands at Rio Grande on the border of the salar . Bolivia has invested $5.7 million in this pilot in order to determine the best process to extract lithium.....[ More ]

HARSH LIGHT:

For generations Aymara people have endured extremely harsh conditions to collect common salt for human consumption by breaking the crust with basic tools. Karina, four years old, has no sunglasses, so her parents have painted around her eyes with charcoal for protection against the harsh glare.....[ More ]

VOLCANISM:

Volcanic activity in the Andian altiplano, along with an exceptional rate of evaporation in the most arid region on Earth, is responsible for the formation and the further concentration of lithium and other minerals.....[ More ]

SALAR DE UYUNI:

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt pan in the world. Beneath its crust is found the world's largest concentration of lithium, estimated at 5.4 million metric tons by the U.S. Geological Survey—or roughly half of the world's reserves.....[ More ]

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