Chile stands out as one of the world's leading lithium producers and exporters, thanks to its vast reserves located in the so-called "lithium triangle" in the north of the country. The Antofagasta salt flats, such as the Salar de Atacama, are home to some of the largest lithium deposits in the world, along with other important salt flats such as the Salar de Maricunga and the Salar de Pedernales.
Lithium, a highly reactive and light metallic chemical element, is found in nature in small quantities, but in Chile it constitutes approximately 50% of the world's lithium reserves. Its use in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electronic devices, electric vehicles, and renewable energy storage systems, as well as in various industrial, chemical, pharmaceutical and glass applications, has driven the growing global demand for lithium-ion batteries.
The growth of the lithium industry in Chile has been remarkable in recent years and is expected to continue to expand in the future. However, this growth has not been without controversy due to its environmental and social impact, especially in relation to the intensive use of water in the extraction and production processes.
Aware of the environmental and social challenges, the Chilean government has worked to implement stricter regulations to ensure a sustainable and responsible exploitation of lithium. These measures include limits on water extraction in salt flats and the requirement of mine closure plans by mining companies. These actions seek to reconcile the development of the industry with the preservation of water resources and the mitigation of negative impacts on local ecosystems.
Lithium mining in Chile began in 1984 through the state-owned Copper Corporation (CODELCO), but today, most of the production is carried out by leading private companies such as Albemarle, SQM and Livent Corporation. These companies are engaged in the extraction, production, and marketing of lithium-related products, operating in different salt flats in the country.
The lithium extraction process in Chile begins with the extraction of brine from the salt flats, which is transported to processing plants where the lithium and other minerals are separated through an evaporation process. The brines are deposited in evaporation pools and subjected to high temperatures so that the water evaporates, and the minerals are concentrated. This process can take between 12 and 24 months, depending on the climatic conditions of the area and the size of the pool.
The economic impact of the lithium industry in Chile has been significant, especially in recent years. According to the National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN), more than 79,000 tons of lithium carbonate were produced in 2020, with a 10% increase compared to the previous year. In economic terms, lithium exports generated revenues of close to US$870 million in 2020, experiencing a 24% increase over the previous year.
Despite the economic benefits, the exploitation of lithium in Chile has generated environmental concerns. The extraction process involves the evaporation of large amounts of water, which is a cause for concern in a country already facing drought problems. In addition, lithium production generates chemical waste that can affect water and soil quality, and these negative impacts need to be adequately addressed.
For the future, it is essential to find a balance between the development of the lithium industry and environmental protection. With stricter regulation, investment in cleaner technologies and a focus on innovation, Chile can continue to be a leader in responsible lithium production. This will leverage its vast reserves to drive the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable economy, ensuring long-term sustainable development.