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Bolivia’s Lithium Resources May Prove Hot Commodity

Bolivian leaders are debating whether the country's vast natural reserves of lithium -- a key ingredient powering electric cars -- should be nationalized in order to boost the nation's struggling economy. ITN's Channel 4 news correspondent Lindsey Hilsum reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we reported, President Obama will be at the Summit of Americas this weekend. A key issue there, along with Cuba, is the economic recession, and that is exacerbating the social and economic divides of the hemisphere, as we see in this report from Bolivia. The correspondent is Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

  • LINDSEY HILSUM:

    We're driving across the largest salt flat in the world. It contains a metal which may soon make our old-fashioned oil-dependent vehicle obsolete. Beneath our wheels lies the essential element of the 21st century, the mineral which could save the planet.

    Guillaume Roelands, a Belgian civil engineer.

    GUILLAUME ROELANDS, civil engineer: Actually, all the minerals are in the brine, not in the salt.

  • LINDSEY HILSUM:

    He's advising the Bolivian government on how to extract lithium, the key ingredient powering the electric cars we may all soon drive. Lithium is light, highly reactive, and can store a charge for longer than other metals, and there's more of it here than anywhere else on Earth.

  • GUILLAUME ROELANDS:

    Well, this is the most important lithium reserve in the world. We are speaking about 70 percent, 80 percent of global lithium reserves that are here.

  • LINDSEY HILSUM:

    The Bolivian team is just starting its project. They've dug ponds in the middle of this unique landscape. Water evaporates, and they're left with dense liquid and crystals.

    As manufacturers begin to move from cars which use oil, emitting global warming gases, to battery-operated vehicles, world demand for lithium is expected to exceed supply within a decade.

    The vast reserves in the Salar de Uyuni are crucial, but we're 3,700 meters above sea level in the poorest country in South America, and this is the most remote part.

  • MARCELO CASTRO, chief engineer (through translator):

    We're starting this company, this project from scratch in a place with no electricity, where all the roads are poor. There's no water, no communication services. The project will have to develop all of that.

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