The industry flirted with electric cars a few times, notably during the gas crisis of the 1970s. The phenomenon got a boost in the early '90s, when California passed a law mandating that car companies peddle electric models. In 1996, GM introduced the EV1, a lead-acid battery-powered car that could travel up to 100 miles on a charge. About 800 were leased over the next two years, but when the courts struck down the law, GM recalled them. Activists for years have accused the company of spiking the program to appease Big Oil, as depicted in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

Rassweiler started work soon after the EV1's failure. The Connecticut native had begun racing competitively in 1989, bouncing between Formula 2000 (the equivalent of Triple A ball for Formula 1) and various other race circuits. He won often enough to keep sponsors and make a living.

But by the turn of the century, both he and partner Lee, a Miami native who won several semipro championships in the '80s, were tiring of the same old competition. "We didn't know much about electric cars, but we loved the challenge," Rassweiler says.

Half the world's lithium lies beneath the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Half the world's lithium lies beneath the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.
Workers test lithium levels at drill sites around Bolivia's salt flat.
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Workers test lithium levels at drill sites around Bolivia's salt flat.

Eventually, the pair found a sponsor — Korean electric battery maker Kokam — and slogged their way through design challenges. Lithium batteries weren't made for race cars, and the team struggled to fit enough of them to last through a race without weighing down the car. On more than one racetrack, Rassweiler ended up bailing out as smoke billowed from overheated batteries.

But on the last weekend of 2007, Rassweiler steered the quiet, lithium-powered Impreza — which they'd nicknamed the "Electric Imp" — around the final turn at Moroso Motorsports Park in Palm Beach County and took the checkered flag. Reaching speeds of more than 100 mph in the emission-free electric car, he beat a dozen other conventional gas-powered racers. As far as Rassweiler and his buddies know, it was the first officially sanctioned electric car victory on a closed course against gas competitors since Riker's 19th-century feat.

"That was a great feeling," Lee remembers. "But we had to work a long, long time to get there."

Next up: the wider automotive industry. The Toyota Prius — the first commercially successful hybrid electric/gas car in the States — began selling in 2000. Last year, more than 1.2 million Priuses were sold, and virtually every U.S. automaker had its own hybrid. Sales are about 3.6 percent of the U.S. market, the highest share ever, according to Hybrid Cars, an industry publication.

Most hybrids use nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are cheaper to make but much heavier and less efficient than the lithium-ion type. Now the world looks poised to shift to lithium cells — and possibly to fully electric cars.

Lithium batteries already power laptops and cell phones. The element is the lightest, least dense metal on Earth. It comes from either brine — like that found under the Bolivian salt flats — or rock formations. The brine is much cheaper to process.

Until now, lithium batteries have been too expensive to mass-produce and sell in cars because they cost hundreds of dollars per cell. Safety issues, including a tendency to overheat when taxed, have also slowed the technology.

But Nissan plans to release the first all-lithium, zero-emission family car — called the Leaf — in the United States later this year. It will be priced "in the range of other typical family sedans," the firm says. BMW is test-driving a lithium-powered Mini Cooper in the States, and Ford is developing a lithium-battery Focus to be released in 2011. The Detroit automaker recently signed a deal with Johnson Controls, which last year earned a $299 million federal stimulus grant to build a lithium-battery plant in Holland, Michigan.

By next year, local dealers might have lithium-battery cars on display. Just last month, Tesla — a boutique California firm that sells all-electric $100,000 roadsters — opened its first Florida shop, in Dania Beach. And Fisker Automotive is taking orders for cars that should arrive later this year at the Warren Henry Automobiles dealership in North Miami-Dade.

Downtown Miami now even has its first electric vehicle recharging station, sponsored by the nonprofit Florida Electric Auto Association. It was installed not long ago near NE 15th Street and North Bayshore Drive.

"These batteries are getting lighter and smaller all the time, which is key for making these kinds of vehicles commercially viable," says Jennifer Moore, a spokeswoman for Ford.

Lithium, in turn, is about to become much more valuable. For the past decade, demand for the mineral has grown by 5 percent a year, according to a report by New Jersey-based Rockwood Holdings, the largest U.S. lithium producer. "Demand is only going to get higher, and markets are only going to get more interested in lithium in the next five years," says Erasto Almeida, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm.

The question, of course, is where all of that lithium will come from.

----------

A little before noon, Marcelo Castro navigates a battered Toyota Land Cruiser down a bumpy dirt road and parks in front of his life's work. When he takes off his hardhat, his curly hair juts out at all angles like Sideshow Bob. With his full, fleshy face and bright red T-shirt, he could pass for Hugo Chávez's younger, fitter cousin.

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