Stand in the middle of Salar de Uyuni, the world's greatest salt desert, and the first word that springs to mind is nothing. As far as the eye can see, nothing. Not a shrub or tree, not a hill or valley, just an endless expanse of white.
This salt flat in Bolivia, the landlocked heart of South America, is a harsh and eerie landscape, perhaps the closest thing nature has to a void. From the Incas to the present day, humanity has made little impression here.
But that may be about to change. Dig down and you find brine – water saturated with salt – rich in deposits of lithium, the lightest metal.
As the invention of the pneumatic tyre turned rubber into a precious commodity in the 19th century, the world's tilt towards greener energy is expected to do the same for lithium in the 21st. For years, tiny amounts have been used in laptops, BlackBerrys and other devices, but now its main use is expected to be in batteries for electric cars, which campaigners, manufacturers and governments say will – or should – replace petrol and diesel vehicles.
For Bolivia, this is good news. It is thought to possess 5.4m tonnes of lithium, half the world's supply. "Lithium is very important for us and the world," Bolivia's mining and metallurgy minister, Luis Alberto Echazú, said. "We hope to extract 1,200 tonnes next year and that's just the beginning. When we're up and running we'll be producing 10, 15 times that."
Four wells have been dug in Salar de Uyuni and a state-run pilot plant is being built near the village of Rio Grande on the fringe of the desert.
But there is a problem. Bolivia's socialist government has a habit of clashing with foreign multinationals in other sectors and has not clinched a deal – and, according to some, may never seal one – with the investors needed to extract significant quantities of lithium.
Foreign companies are afraid to deal with a government that confiscates assets and rips up contracts, said Carlos Alberto López, a former energy minister and consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "Bolivia's ideological face does not square with business and commercial realities. I doubt lithium's potential will be realised in the short or medium term." Pessimists fear a fiasco: carmakers lacking batteries to power electric vehicles and Bolivia, one of the continent's poorest countries, losing an opportunity to develop. President Evo Morales, a former llama herder and trade union leader, has a different fear: that western multinationals will suck the wealth of Salar de Uyuni like capitalist vampires. Morales swept to power in 2005 promising to end 500 years of plunder. Lithium is a test case. "The government of Bolivia will never give away control of this natural resource," he said. He acknowledges, however, that a foreign partner is needed.
The government is talking to France's Bollore Group, South Korea's LG Group and Japan's Sumitomo and Mitsubishi. Bollore has been asked to join the government's scientific commission on lithium, suggesting it has the edge.
The government said it would choose as a partner the company which will help Bolivian industry and not just mining. The idea is to process and add value to the lithium after it is extracted, for instance by making batteries or even fleets of electric cars in the impoverished country. The $6m (£3.6m) state-run pilot plant near Rio Grande is the first step. At the end of a dirt track dozens of workers are building barracks to house technicians and miners. Over a generator's hum Marcelo Castro, 48, the site manager, exuded patriotic pride. "We are building everything from scratch. This is a historic moment. We are working for ourselves." Rich countries would no longer plunder Bolivia's resources. "There is a new dialectic."
Sceptics say that is delirium. Work at the pilot plant has proved slow, talks with multinationals remain inconclusive and there is no production timetable.
The 2006 nationalisation of the oil and gas industry is a troubling precedent. Foreign investment evaporated, production fell and the state-owned energy company, YPFB, became mired in corruption. "The trustworthiness of the Bolivian state has come into question," said López, "and I don't think investors will expose themselves to being hammered on the head."
Time will tell. With a lithium shortage forecast for 2015, Bolivia may also have the upper hand. "We have had bad experiences in the past," said Paulino Colque, leader of an indigenous workers' group Uyuni. "If there are any investors that want to come, they can come – but as partners, not patrons."
Running on lithium
Lithium ion batteries, first proposed in the 1970s but not commercialised until 20 years later, are the technology most likely in the short-term to make the clean electricity dream viable. Several times lighter than current rechargeable batteries (usually made from nickel compounds) and with a better performance and longer lifetime, Li-ion cells have already been developed for laptops and mobile phones. Now they face their biggest challenge. For cars, they will have to be more powerful, more reliable and – a big sticking point – far cheaper. Most experimental electric vehicles today use some form of Li-ion batteries and many experts agree the technology is ready for the first generation of electric vehicles. The other big hurdle is size: the batteries are still too big.