Lithium is an essential element for batteries that are increasingly used for storing electricity generated by renewable energy and to power electric cars and other rechargeable batteries used for powering electric gadgets and much else.
The world’s largest lithium reserves are in the “lithium triangle”, covering Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Production is greatest at a salt flat in the Atacama Desert, Chile. However an even larger, but so far unexploited, supply lies in Bolivia, under Salar de Uyuni, a huge salt flat in the Andes. This was formed when a vast ancient lake dissolved lithium out of volcanic rocks and slowly evaporated, leaving behind a concentrated lithium brine beneath a thick crust of solid salt.
The Salar de Uyuni is the flattest place on Earth and so reflective that it creates a gigantic mirror during the wet season from December to April. Nearby lakes overflow on to the salt flat, leaving a thin sheet of water that makes a shiny surface, reflecting the sky so clearly that there is an illusion that sky and ground have merged. The Salar de Uyuni is so flat and reflective that satellites in space use it to measure altitudes. The Salar de Uyuni has become a tourist attraction, with hotels made entirely of blocks of salt, even down to the furniture. Another attraction is an impressive graveyard of old steam engine locomotives that were abandoned decades ago and which have hardly rusted in the dry desert air.