Bolivia’s stunning salt flats

Environmental pyramids
The Salar de Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia, covering more than 10,000 square kilometers, are the most extensive in the world, and so level that the surface is used to calibrate the altimeters on board satellites. On a still day, the thin layer of water covering the salt forms a great mirror reflecting the sky. Piled up in pyramids is the salt from which the people of the village of Colchani eke out a living. Yet beneath the shiny expanse is a brine rich in lithium salts that have huge commercial potential. According to the latest report by the US Geological Survey, Salar de Uyuni contains 9 million tones of lithium, more than a quarter of the world’s known resources. This could rise to about 50 per cent if the lithium in more than 30 other salars and lagoons in southwestern Bolivia is included. Lithium is increasingly required for the batteries that power phones, laptops, cordless tools and a range of hybrid and electric vehicles – so much so that there are fears that demand will soon outstrip supply. Talk that impoverished Bolivia could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” has encouraged its socialist president, Evo Morales, to keep this valuable resource under tight state control. The country has spent three years and more than $10 million on a pilot plant to extract the lithium. But according to Juan Carlos Zuleta, a lithium economics analyst based in the capital, La Paz, this has so far produced “only meagre results”.
Source: www.newscientist.com, June 9, 2011

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