Salt Road

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Funny how natural resources rise and fall in our estimation.

There was a time when salt – plain old salt, the stuff we buy for pennies – was the cornerstone of empires, the arrow of conflict, the reason for Roman roads and the thorn that pricked societies to revolution.

Precious salt preserved food for long journeys, drew out illness, was strewn on farmlands to ruin economies, and only lastly lent spice to life.

Industrial progress changed all that, and now salt is so common and cheap that even the exotic varieties (black volcanic, spiced, Himalayan) are affordable.

Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

World’s largest salt flats at Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

The salt flats in southwest Bolivia are comprised of sodium chloride and traces of other elements. Notably, large amounts of lithium, which has recently become interesting as a key element for the batteries upon which modern life is built, i.e. those for consumer electronic devices.

Lithium makes up only 0.0007% of the earth’s crust, and is usually extracted through the electrolysis of lithium chloride (LiCl). Lithium is not found free in nature.

It’s the lightest metal element and can be alloyed with all manner of other metals and substances to make strong, light materials. Special light glass for telescope lenses, for example, or metal for aircraft.

According to TIME magazine, “For decades the salt flats have simply been a curiosity for adventure travelers (…), and a source of subsistence for impoverished salt gatherers who scrape mounds of salt and sell it as table salt. The production of lithum, which requires months of slow evaporation and weeks of refining in a lab, could transform the salt flats into the economic engine of Bolivia.”

I had started this post wanting to write about the decreasing value of salt as it became more common, and the possible increasing value of water as it becomes more scarce, but got completely sidetracked by this lithium story in Bolivia.
Sometimes curiosity takes us on the most unexpected side routes.
A good overview of salt history here.

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