ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE, 2013

In the largest lithium deposit currently in operation, two workers take samples in a settling tank at the Rockwood Lithium plant

Alvarado

© Reuters / Ivan Alvarado

 

The story of lithium dates back more than 10 billion years, just three minutes after the great explosion that created the universe. It was the first metal, the lightest, to emerge from the dense cloud of primordial chaos. And it is precisely this ancient genesis that gives lithium the exceptional properties that make it one of the most sought-after resources on the market today, capable, according to some, of one day redrawing the world’s geopolitical balance. It is thanks to lithium that we can equip our smartphones and tablets with ever smaller and more powerful batteries.
But that’s not all. Electric cars, renewable energies, the Internet of Things: the “green” technologies of the future need high-performance batteries to function. This is why many countries consider procuring essential components (especially lithium and cobalt) on the market to be strategic.
Forty percent of the world’s lithium reserves are today found in the spectacular salt deserts of the Chilean, Bolivian and Argentinian Andes. By patiently allowing the brines in which it is dissolved to evaporate in the sun, up to 100,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate - a white powder so precious it has been nicknamed “white gold” - can be produced here every year. In the lunar desolation of the Andean salt pans, the large settling pools appear as blue and yellow pieces of a large shimmering mosaic, revealing the presence of man in these inhospitable places. But the environmental risks of the process are far from negligible. Careless exploitation of the deposits could disrupt the delicate hydrogeological balance of a region where water is already scarce. Meeting the growing demand will therefore not be easy. By 2030, demand could triple and without alternative chemicals (or efficient recycling methods), the system may prove to be unsustainable.

Alessandro Braggion