Lithium Mining in Chile

Salar de Atacama, Chile.

Salar de Atacama, located 55 km (34 mi) south of San Pedro de Atacama, is the largest salt flat in Chile. It is surrounded by mountains and has no drainage outlets. To the east is enclosed by the main chain of the Andes, while to the west lies a secondary mountain range of the Andes called Cordillera de Domeyko.

The barren lands of Salar de Atacama, a dried bed of the ancient Chilean lake 700 miles north of Santiago is one of the dirtiest places on Earth. Nothing ever grows here. It is a wasteland laid out with sparkling salt-encrusted rocks that resemble cow pies. Annual rainfall on the salar (from Spanish - "salt lake") rarely tops a few millimetres. High altitude of 1.4 miles above sea level combined with cloudless skies incapable of reflecting the punishing rays of solar radiation may damage exposed skin in minutes.

Humans would keep clear of the Salar de Atacama was it not for the precious brine that lays 130 feet below lake's surface. The brine looks like slushy, dirt-stained snow when first pumped from the ground. But when the water in the brine slowly evaporates when left under the desert sun, it leaves behind a yellowy mineral bath that could be mistaken for olive oil.

This yellow greasy solution produces the substance that makes modern life possible: lithium. The lightest of all metals, lithium is the key ingredient in the rechargeable batteries. The ingredient that is in high demand to keep up with the technological evolution, as the battery industry doubled its consumption of lithium over the last few years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this single ancient lake bed contains 27% of the world's reserve base of the metal. Chile may be called "the Saudi Arabia of lithium".

The Salar of Atacama, containing 27% of the world's lithium reserve base, is the world's largest and purest active source of lithium. And as of 2008 provided almost 30% of the world's lithium carbonate supply. Thanks to its brine's high lithium concentration, averaging 2,700 parts per million, its high rate of evaporation, 3,500 millimetres per year, and its low annual rainfall of just a few millimetres per year, Atacama's finished lithium carbonate is more effective to produce and less expensive than the one that could be produced from the neighbouring Salar de Uyuni, which is estimated to have half of the lithium reserves in the world.

The primary global source of lithium production is currently derived from Chilean and Argentinean continental brine deposits as The Salar de Atacama is the location of the world’s largest lithium brine mine to date operated by Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile S.A. This salar is also the site of a productive lithium mine operated by Rockwood Holdings the parent company of Chemetall, which is a diversified manufacturer and marketer of specialty chemicals.