Lithium in Chile

Believe it or not, there's a place on the planet that sees one inch of rain every thirteen years. It's a desert in Chile called Salar de Atacama. It's the driest place on earth – a fact even introduced once on "Jeopardy" -- but for producers of lithium, this desert is one of the richest. Above ground is a vast wasteland of dried clumps of clay, some the size of a child's bicycle. Nothing grows out here. Below ground, though, is a different story.

"This is the best place on earth," Ron France told me in the middle of the desert. Neither of us could have traveled to many places that were more remote. France is president of Chemetall, an American company that produces lithium. Lithium is the world's lightest metal, and the energy source in the batteries of cell phones, laptops and Blackberrys.

Snow melts off the nearby Andes mountains and is trapped underground is this closed basin. One-hundred thirty feet below the surface, the water gathers in salt water brines. Chemetall, France's company, pumps the brine above ground into a series of ponds. In a process that lasts eighteen months, the desert sun evaporates out other salts. The beauty is that the sun does almost all the work. What's left is lithium brine, which is shipped to a nearby factory for processing into lithium carbonate powder and shipped to battery-makers, mostly in Asia.

Demand for lithium is about to soar. This fall, Mercedes will introduce into showrooms its first plug-in hybrid car. Its power will come from a lithium ion battery and the lithium alone in that battery will weigh twenty pounds. (The lithium in a cell phone weighs one-tenth of an ounce.) A half-dozen other carmakers have plans for their own plug-in models, powered by lithium. Chevy claims its new Volt will get at least 250 miles per gallon.

Three major companies dominate the world's lithium market. The metal itself is produced in only a half-dozen countries, including a small site in Nevada, but half the world's lithium comes from the Salar de Atacama. That's why Ron France thinks of this remote place in Chile as the best on earth.

So remember the Salar de Atacama. If plug-in hybrid cars catch on, the focus of America's energy policy could start to shift away from OPEC pipelines in the Middle East to lithium brine pools and Chile. And you never know when the name might come in handy as an answer on a "Jeopardy" re-run."

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.