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As international carmakers scramble to find a suitable alternative to petrol vehicles, Bolivia hopes its lithium reserves could be harnessed to provide an energy source - and hold the key to new-found wealth and political influence. 

The sky is an infinite blue. The land is perfectly flat, and dazzlingly white, stretching to a line of distant volcanoes. Twelve thousand feet (3,700m) up here in the high Andean plains of south western Bolivia, the subzero nights are bitingly cold, but the days are hot even in the middle of winter.

The unclouded sun is reflected upwards by the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. It is a spectacular desert. For decades now it has drawn young and hardy international backpackers to endure the dusty hours of jolting journeying by bus and train and 4x4 vehicles into a vast nowhere.

But now this arduous journey is being made by other people - engineers and businessmen from some of the world's largest mining and chemical companies. They are here every week. They are drawn to the salt flats by what lies metres below the ice-like crust of salt and mud. Down there is a great reserve of brine, and contained in the salty liquid, the largest deposits in the world of the lightest metal, lithium.

For years lithium has been used for specialist purposes such as ceramics, and pills for depression. But suddenly there is a huge new potential demand. Great expectations Over the past few years many people have driven or been driven in several rechargeable electric cars.

Vehicle manufacturers old and new are rushing to build substitutes for the internal combustion engine. Great hopes are being placed on batteries with this very light lithium at their core, much quicker to charge and discharge power (so they say) than heavy conventional batteries.

So if plug-in cars catch on, lithium may be one of the vital raw materials for the auto revolution. And here in the Salar de Uyuni the experts think that the difficult and poverty-stricken country of Bolivia holds 50% of the world's total supplies of lithium, contained in these vast hidden lakes of brine.

That is why Marcelo Castro is building a pilot plant to learn how to get the lithium out of these salt flats, and then how to evaporate the brine and separate the precious metal from the salt. All this is raising great expectations in landlocked Bolivia.

To outsiders it is a very curious country, the second poorest state in South America after Guyana, a society riven by fault lines - great gaps between rich and poor, big geographical differences between the lush east and the towering Andes in the west, and sharp racial differences between successful former Europeans and a majority of indigenous peoples.

These are the ones who voted the first indigenous president into office in 2006. Evo Morales has moved quickly to shift power in favour of the peoples he comes from.

He has nationalised the commanding heights of the economy including oil and natural gas. And he has moved to break up big land estates.

The president  has also pronounced that the new windfall, raw material lithium, should not be exploited by predator overseas capitalist multinationals, but developed by the state for the benefit of Bolivia. 

The local people marched hundreds of miles to the capital La Paz in the 1990s to block the foreign exploitation of the salt flats; and they now praise the Morales tactics of homemade development of these riches. But that will take money and expertise, which Bolivia will have to import, and multinational companies are wary of socialist countries with big state ambitions.

If the world takes to the electric car, and if lithium really is the metal that will power it, and if the Bolivians can deliver, we may soon be hearing quite a lot more about the great Uyuni salt flats.

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