Bolivia’s Almost Impossible Lithium Dream – by Laura Millan Lombrana (Bloomberg News – December 3, 2018)

A small army of workers from cities and villages across Bolivia boards the buses for the last leg of a commute that can last days. The meandering, bumpy dirt roads, the thin air at high altitude, the ordeal of bringing labor into the blinding white plain of the world’s largest salt flat—all of this stands between anyone who dreams of retrieving Bolivia’s lithium riches and turning it into electric-car batteries.

These workers will spend two weeks at the Uyuni salt flat in the southern tip of Bolivia before they return home for a seven-day rest. They are attempting to build a world-class lithium mine on top of the Andes mountains, about 12,000 feet above sea level at the heart of landlocked Bolivia. The nearest port is at least 500 kilometers and a border crossing away.

From above, this vast area appears so white it gets mistaken for a giant snow plain. The salt crystallizes in the dry season, forming millions of tile-looking hexagons that span an area as large as Connecticut. During the wet season, it’s covered by a thin layer of water that forms a giant mirror, reflecting the sky so neatly that the line of the horizon disappears. The visual effect draws thousands of visitors and the Dakar Rally every year, making it Bolivia’s top tourist destination.

Getting the lithium out will prove far more difficult than bringing tourists in. Most observers doubt that Bolivia’s lithium will ever support a commercial mining operation. Still, the government is eager to tap into the global hunger for a mineral essential to power electric cars and build storage batteries.

The ambition is to ultimately transform Bolivia into a manufacturer of the rechargeable batteries inside Tesla Inc.’s all-electric cars and the nearly 300 EV models expected to reach the market by 2022, according to Bloomberg NEF.

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