Bolivia exports lithium?

President Morales may well be overplaying his hand. Despite the show in Cochabamba, not everything we class as green is gold.

The late, great Jean Shepherd, in his classic story A Fistful of Fig Newtons, told me everything I ever knew as a kid about the country of Bolivia.

Bolivia exports tin.

It still does. But what your kids may memorize is something different, and more important.

Bolivia exports lithium.

Lithium is a crucial ingredient in laptop batteries. Lithium helps power your iPhone.

Bolivia has more of it than any country in the world. Its deposits are under the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt flat visible from space. (Wikipedia got this image from the Landsat satellite.)

The nearest large city to Salar de Uyuni is Cochabamba, where it's no coincidence that President Evo Morales is today concluding the World People's Conference on Climate Change, an alternative climate summit to last year's attempt at Copenhagen.

Besides being quite a party, the summit is also a showcase for Morales' demand that his government not only control the resource, but the resulting manufacturing, creating jobs for the nation's poor.

Chile is currently the world's largest producer, using brines similar to those in Salar de Uyuni, but there it's an extraction industry. They're not making batteries.

The big news is that South Korea is taking a flyer on Bolivia's lithium, putting $90,000 into a study on the necessary infrastructure due out in August. The hope is to create a road map that the country might use to maximize both its return and the possibility of drawing investment -- presumably from South Korea.

The American reaction to Morales is that he's a looney, who believes chickens cause baldness and teh gay. Even environmentalists are dismissive. Duke environmental professor Bill Chameides says the U.S. could produce a lot of lithium using Nevada brines.

The main reason to be interested in Bolivian lithium at all, he writes, is that it's cheaper to produce it from brines than from mineral sources such as North Carolina spodumene, from which it is concentrated into lithium carbonate.

All of which means President Morales may well be overplaying his hand. Despite the show in Cochabamba, not everything we class as green is gold.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com