Batteries that power our smartphones need lithium – an increasingly precious resource. Could Bolivia supply the world?
IN THE middle of the Salar de Uyuni, a fleck of volcanic rock called Isla del Pescado rises out of the salt. Its peaks are furred with 3-metre-high cacti, though plants here grow just a centimetre per year. Salt stretches out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Other than dark traces from the tyres of tourist 4x4s, only sunset and sunrise disrupt the white of the salt flats, tinting it pink and green.
Concentrated in layers of brine beneath this expanse, 3800 metres up in the Bolivian Andes, is more lithium than anywhere else on the planet. Until 20 years ago, this lightest of all metals had mundane and low-key uses: as a glaze for heatproof cookware, for example, or a grease to lubricate hot moving motor parts. But that’s all changed with the advent of lithium-ion batteries. Portable, rechargeable and …
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