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Lithium Mining Heats Up in Chile’s Desert to Quench Demand for EV Batteries: NPR

A worker performs maintenance on pipes used during brine extraction at a lithium mine in Chile’s Atacama desert on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


A worker performs maintenance on pipes used during brine extraction at a lithium mine in Chile’s Atacama desert on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR

ATACAMA DESERT, Chile — In the middle of the desert in northern Chile, huge pools of Caribbean blue water sit beside what appear to be snowdrifts.

But this is a lithium mine.

The pools are filled with salty groundwater that contains lithium. It is a key component in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, solar panels, and other green technologies.

“It’s really, really a beautiful place,” says Marcelo Valdebenito, public relations officer for Albemarle Corp., the Charlotte, North Carolina-based chemical company that operates the mine. “This is the lithium that feeds the world.”

In fact, the world is hungry for the silvery-white metal. the International Energy Agency is projecting a more than 40-fold increase in lithium demand by 2040. Lithium the prices have paste historical highs this year.


Left: Lithium mines extract brine from groundwater that is 10 times saltier than seawater. It has been evaporated for 18 months in a 6% lithium solution. Center: lots of salt, a byproduct of the evaporation process. Right: A sample of lithium concentrate ready to be transported to a purification plant.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR

Despite growing concerns about the environmental impact of lithium extraction, the growing demand is good news for mining companies in Chile. The South American country is the second largest producer of lithium after Australia. And Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are known as the “lithium triangle”, which holds together more than a half of the world’s proven lithium reserves.

Annual production at the Albemarle mine has increased from 22,000 tons to 84,000 tons since 2016, says Ignacio Mehech, the company’s country manager in Chile.

“We are growing as demand grows and today we are a much bigger company,” Mehech told NPR, adding that the company now has 1,000 employees in Chile, up from 250 five years ago.


Groundwater brine pools in the final stage of evaporation at the Albemarle mine on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


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Groundwater brine pools in the final stage of evaporation at the Albemarle mine on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR

South America could light up

Still, the region’s lithium production is only a fraction of what it could be, raising fears of an eventual bottleneck in global supplies.

The president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, promised to make his country “the lithium capital of the world” and supply 40% of global demand for the metal by 2030. But due to technological challenges and community resistance, as well as heavy state intervention in the economy, the industry has been slow to develop. Production in Bolivia remains insignificant.

Economic turmoil has prevented Argentina from opening more mines.

Meanwhile, Chile has high taxes and strict mining regulations, says Mehech. the red ribbon For production permits, it involves getting approval from the nation’s nuclear energy commission, since the metal can be used in nuclear power and weapons.

“It’s very difficult and that’s why you don’t see more lithium companies in Chile,” Mehech says of Albemarle, which he says is one of only two companies producing lithium in Chile.

Mining raises environmental concerns

But some Chileans prefer a slow approach.


Left: Workers monitor the 150 precipitation pools at the Albemarle mine. Center and right: Salt, a byproduct of the brine evaporation process, accumulates at the Albemarle lithium mine in the Atacama desert on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR

They include microbiologist Cristina Dorador, who has spent years studying the salt flats of the Atacama desert. She says that lithium mines extract large amounts of groundwater. Ten times saltier than seawater, this brine is then placed in huge evaporation pools. After 18 months, the resulting 6% lithium solution turns into a white lithium powder and is exported for use in batteries.

Dorador says removing so much groundwater will inevitably make the Atacama Desert, home to Chile’s lithium mines, hotter and drier. She recently co-authored a research linking lithium mining to an 11% reduction in the local flamingo population over the last decade.

“With so much pressure from the world to produce more lithium,” he says, “Chile’s environment will pay the price.”

Why not do the batteries too?

Another critic is Andrés Díaz, who directs the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at Diego Portales University in Santiago, the Chilean capital. Instead of just lithium, he believes Chile should produce and export higher-value lithium-ion batteries that the country currently imports from Asia at high cost.

To move in that direction, Albemarle signed an agreement with the Chilean government to spend $300 million on research and development here by 2043.

“For us, it makes no sense to export lithium and then buy batteries from other countries with a material that we produced from the beginning,” says Díaz.


Evaporation pools at the Albemarle mine on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR


Evaporation pools at the Albemarle mine on August 24.

Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR

Mehech acknowledges that lithium mining uses a large amount of underground water but he claims the trade-off is worth it. He points out that the amount of water required to produce enough lithium for an electric car battery is about the same amount needed to produce half a pound of beef or 11 avocados.

Avocados, he says, will only last a few days, “but a lithium battery lasts 10 years and then you can recycle it.”

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