The Lithium Series

18 June 2024

As we are slowly moving towards a world of sustainable energy, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy causes a new spiral of human impact on the environment. Finding the resources such as lithium, cobalt and nickel required to enable the transformation could create a new bottleneck in its own right.

Our endless hunger for the latest electronic devices that are driven by lithium-ion batteries is growing the mineral crisis. Especially the transformation in electromobility is generating an unparalleled demand for lithium. For example, a smartphone battery contains two to three grams of lithium; an electric car needs about 20 to 30 kg of lithium.

More than 50% of the worlds lithium resources occur in South America, in the lithium Triangle of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile contain more than a quarter of the world’s lithium supplies. It’s one of the driest and least populated places on Earth. But the metal industries are changing the landscape. The biggest lithium evaporation production site globally is even visible from space. The lithium-extraction field is situated south of the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Brine, rich in lithium from more than 100 meters underneath the salt flats, is pumped into huge pools. Sun evaporates the brine and the concentration of lithium increases. The turquoise coloured brine gets pumped for more than one year from pond to pond until the lithium concentration in the water reaches a level of 6% and a deep yellow hue. The concentrated brine is transported in trucks to be further processed in Chemical plants at this stage.

It is paradoxical with lithium and other resources: Industrial countries in Europe, China, and North America advertise electric mobility as a green solution. On the other side, we exploit countries on the other end of the world for resources and transport them around the globe. Continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels isn’t an option either. We need to understand the value of all resources and how supposedly positive progress may impact elsewhere.

Click here to read more.