Feuding Over Powder From South America: Sound Familiar?

February 4, 2009

Nearly half of the world's supply of lithium lies within desert salt mines in Bolivia. As demand for lithium ramps up quickly, driven by promising lithium-ion automotive battery technology in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, the quest for trade deals with Bolivia becomes increasingly political. Could lithium one day become as sought after and controversial as foreign oil?

Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID lithium-ion battery pack

Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID lithium-ion battery pack

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Pushing back against the Japanese and European companies trying to broker deals with Bolivia is the country's President Evo Morales. Morales, much like Hugo Chavez, is openly critical of the U.S. and has already put restrictions on his country's natural gas and oil resources. Not only is Bolivia planning on keeping tight reigns on its vast lithium deposits, but the peasant salt harvesters who mine it have their own designs on the potential profits to be reaped.

Quoted in the New York Times, Francisco Quisbert said, "we know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium. We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property." Quisbert is the head of Frutcas, an organization of salt harvesters and farmers who work on the world's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni.

So it looks like buying a Chevy Volt will be a mite more complicated than U.S. subsidies of $15,000 to bring its price within realm of the buying public. What's next, OLEC and the lithium wars?

[source: New York Times]

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