They watch carefully as a mobile rig, mounted on tank treads, hammers and spins a drill bit hundreds of yards into the bedrock. Water gushes from the bore as the bit punctures an underground spring.
The men are prospecting for new sources of lithium, a raw material now found primarily in China and Chile that could become as important to the auto industry as oil is now.
Faster than anyone expected, electric cars are becoming as economical and practical as cars with conventional engines. Prices for lithium-ion batteries are plummeting, while technical advances are increasing driving ranges and cutting recharging times.
“Once the trend gets going, it can happen very fast,” said Guido Jouret, chief digital officer at ABB, an electronics company based in Zurich whose businesses include constructing charging stations.
But this electric-car future is still missing some pieces. Some crucial raw materials are scarce. There are not enough places to recharge. Battery-powered cars still cost thousands of dollars more than many gasoline vehicles.
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