With an eco-friendly president finally in power and the auto industry under mandate to go green or die, the age of the electric automobile seems near enough. But not so fast. We may yet be kept from our great green dream by the will of a small South American country, as the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales positions itself to control the world's access to lithium — an obscure metal upon which, it turns out, the fate of viable electric automobiles currently hangs.
As the future of electric car technology now stands, lithium is the new oil — the basic (and scarce) geophysical component of an energy source that will power our vaunted green vehicles. It's used to make lithium-ion batteries, the next (and essential) generation of power-storage devices for electric vehicles. Li-ion batteries can store more energy in a significantly smaller space than traditional batteries (most of which are lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride) because lithium has more energy density and electrochemical potential in its atomic bonds than any other metal.
And since it weighs less than nickel, it would allow next-generation electric vehicles to not only store more energy, but also to be driven longer distances.
Bolivia, however, controls half the world's lithium — which wouldn't be such a big deal if the country played by the same global-capitalist rules of enlightened self interest that other countries follow (healthy greed, or whatever you might call it). But it doesn't.
Bolivia's current political establishment is in the process of empowering its native Indian population after years of subjugation. Morales (the country's first president of indigenous Indian decent) seeks to do this in part by giving control of the country's natural resources to Indian tribes native to the area. And nationalism seems to be the dominant sentiment, not greed — at least not now. Bolivia wants to control the lithium-development process from extraction to battery production, despite the country's utter lack of infrastructure and know-how. And its aspirations are grand to say the least — and decidedly long-term: to become nothing less than the Saudi Arabia of the electric car age.
That's not the ideal development, but at least it wouldn't mean the end of the lithium-ion route to the electric age — it would only make it a bit pricier. But Saudi Arabia needed billions of dollars of investment to extract its oil from the ground — and lithium isn't any easier to extract. And while Morales has recently committed $5.7 million to lithium extraction development — that's hardly the billions needed. And Bolivia is one of South America's poorest and least developed nations — so the money needs to come from elsewhere. Meaning the Bolivians should be cultivating outside investors. Instead, they're routinely turning them away. Mitsubishi, Toyota, the French and plenty of others have essentially been told to get lost. And the country's closest ally, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, is looking less and less like a viable source of that investment as the price of its principal commodity, oil, continues to stay low.
So even the less-attractive neo-petro state option seems to be doomed. And there seems to be no viable alternative to Bolivia as a source of lithium in the long term. Other nations with lithium reserves have been stepping up, like China, which has taped a source in Tibet. And there are a few others — Chile, for example. But many geologists (and economists) seem to be convinced that the lithium reserves outside of Bolivia are simply not enough to meet what is already a surging global demand. Auto executives have estimated that it could be no more than a decade before the demand for lithium exceeds supplies.
The case is simple and sad: Without a workable deal with Bolivia things look bleak; the little South American nation may just spell the end of the age of the electric automobile — before it's even begun.