One of the more interesting subplots of the environmental movement that has popped up lately is the potential of lithium-ion batteries to replace gasoline in automobiles. Lithium-ion batteries are lighter, more energy dense, and lower-maintenance than some of their more conventional counterparts.
Car companies both large and small have been making major bets on the technology. GM’s long-awaited Chevrolet Volt will run primarily on a lithium-ion battery, as will the next-generation Toyota Prius, and a whole host of other cars from the likes of Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, and Volkswagen. A swath of startups including Tesla Motors, and China's BYD Auto are also bringing the technology to market. LG Chem (a major producer of lithium-ion batteries) predicted that 4.6 million electric vehicles would be on the road as soon as 2015. With expectations and capital commitments so high, one has to ask the question - what will happen if the technology is actually as successful as these companies seem to think it will be? One consequence would be a massive supply chain shift that would divert some attention away from oil and towards lithium.
And this is where Bolivia enters the picture.
Bolivia currently has about 5.4 million tons of lithium metal, which accounts for about 50% of the world’s total reserves. Companies such as South Korea’s LG Chem have already approached the Bolivian government to gain access. The looming fear is that the country’s socialist-leaning President Evo Morales could assert control over the operations after production has begun. This turn of events would echo a 2006 incident in which Bolivia nationalized the oil industry. Foreign companies including BP were forced to turn their operations over to the government.
Most analysts (and for that matter car companies) believe that, in the long term, the transportation manufacturing industry must find an alternative means of fueling their cars. If lithium-ion batteries can fill that role, Bolivia will be thrust into the center of the global energy spotlight.