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PHOTO CAPTION: Bolivian president Evo Morales with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

For Lithium Car Batteries, Bolivia Is in the Driver's Seat

'The days of U.S. car companies buying cheap raw materials to sell expensive cars are over,' states Bolivian Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu.

Published: 26-Jan-2009

Breaking America's dependence on foreign energy supplies and suppliers who often don't like the U.S. is a driving force behind the search for alternative fuels. That includes electric cars, which wheezing Detroit has finally realized it needs to produce. But at Detroit's International Auto Show this month, the excitement surrounding the Big Three's announcements that they're shifting from gasoline to voltage has been tempered by another realization: most of the lithium used to make the batteries for those cars is found in Bolivia, whose leftist President isn't too fond of the U.S. (See the top 10 cars from Detroit's Auto Show.)

Small, impoverished Bolivia, in fact, is the Saudi Arabia of lithium. It's home to 73 million metric tons of lithium carbonate, more than half the world's supply. The largest single deposit is the Salar de Uyuni, a vast, 4,085-square-mile (6,575-sq-km) salt desert in the southern Potosi region that is also one of Bolivia's biggest tourist attractions.

President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous head of state, prides himself on state control over natural resources he nationalized the country's (massive natural gas reserves in 2006). If the past is any indication, electric carmakers should look to the Andes with sober eyes. "This is a unique opportunity for us," says Bolivian Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu. "The days of U.S. car companies buying cheap raw materials to sell expensive cars are over." Indeed, Bolivia's lithium abundance could put car manufacturers in the position of replacing one energy-rich Latin American U.S. critic — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — with another.

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