Lithium in Chile

I just returned from the Atacama desert in Chile, where I was surprised to discover that 30% of world Lithium production comes from the Salar de Atacama. This huge salt flat covers ~3000 square km and is the driest (non-polar) place on earth. The only source of water and minerals flows down from the Andes onto the Salar where it becomes trapped and (mostly) evaporates. This is because flow to the sea is blocked by a long coastal mountain range. The lowest point in the Salar contains a small salty lake where pink Flamingo’s feed on algae, the only source of life.  However 40m beneath the salt flats lies a rich brine which contains 40% of all known world Lithium reserves. This brine has the highest concentration of Lithium anywhere on earth.

On the flats near Flamingo reserve

The brine is pumped up into huge evaporation ponds on the western edge of the Salar. The residue is processed into Lithium carbonate for export mainly to China. 30% of all phone, camera and electric car batteries originate from here. Lithium is the lightest metal and is easily ionised to charge and discharge anode/cathode voltage. Optimisation of electrolytes, cathode and anode materials has led to modern lithium ion batteries for cell phones and electric cars.

View from my Aeroplane. The white salt covers a vast distance and in the foreground you can just see the two huge evaporation ponds for extracting Lithium Carbonate.

Recently Britain and France pledged to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars after 2040. This implies that if the world follows their lead somehow billions of new electric vehicles will be produced to replace them. There are two main problems with this idea. Firstly is there enough Lithium in the world to produce so many batteries? A recent estimate by Stanford University says this is not currently feasible.

It is certainly possible to build millions of electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, but it may not be possible to make billions of them.

The second problem is how to generate the estimated 30% more electrical energy needed to charge all these batteries. Generally speaking cars are needed during the day so consequently they really should be charged overnight. Only Nuclear energy can really fit the bill, because wind/solar would themselves need battery storage to overcome intermittency problems and this would defeat the object.

There is also an environmental problem with Lithium mining in the Salar. Mining companies have an agreement with the local indigenous people who ‘own’ the Salar, just to ‘extract’ water. However, if too much brine is pumped to the surface and evaporated, then the Salar themselves could become unstable, and also threaten the Flamingo reserve.

About Clive Best

PhD High Energy Physics Worked at CERN, Rutherford Lab, JET, JRC, OSVision
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5 Responses to Lithium in Chile

  1. Cytokinin says:

    Hadn’t you heard Clive, we’re going to cut grooves in the road and run scalectrix cars. You’d have thought that the business plan might have looked at resources before investing billions.

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