If everything goes as planned, the final, refined lithium metal used in batteries will be created on-site. Another plant, to produce batteries — and perhaps even a factory to make electric cars — will stand nearby. "We've had no shortage of interest from investors," Roelants says. "And we are open to partners in the final phase of this project. But we've made it clear that Bolivia will have at least a 51 percent stake in that work."

Roelants knows the skeptics are numerous.

No one debates that Bolivia's lithium reserves are huge, but the combined technical, political, and economic challenges might be too large for the country to overcome. Some analysts say the Chilean and Argentine reserves alone might be enough to supply a global lithium-vehicle market.

Cliff Rassweiler built a lithium-powered race car in suburban Miami.
C. Stiles
Cliff Rassweiler built a lithium-powered race car in suburban Miami.
Marcelo Castro leads construction on a $6 million lithium plant in Bolivia.
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Marcelo Castro leads construction on a $6 million lithium plant in Bolivia.

"My view is that the rising cost of lithium right now is all speculative and won't pan out in the long run," says LoCascio, the senior analyst. "These cars are never going to be a big niche in the market."

But Rassweiler, the Miami racing pioneer, disagrees. He's working today in his Kendall garage to rebuild the Electric Imp, his history-making electric racer.

With Lee, he has repackaged the lithium batteries in cooler, longer aluminum shells so they can complete longer races without overheating.

Rassweiler is encouraged by the big automakers' turn toward lithium, but he has doubts about the amount of time it will take to make the technology affordable. The future, in Miami and around the world, includes a lot of lithium, he says.

"We may still be a long way off," he says, "but this is going to happen."

Thousands of Bolivians hope he's right.

Alejandra Landivar and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky contributed to this article. It was produced on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship directed by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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