SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s environmental regulator this week approved a $25 million compliance plan by lithium miner SQM (SQMa.SN), ending a multi-year investigation by authorities that found the Chilean miner had overdrawn lithium-rich brine from the Atacama salt flat.
The case, now resolved, raised questions about how much brine and fresh water was left beneath the Atacama, and how long it would last. Those concerns, and others, still linger. Here’s why:
WHAT IS THE SALAR DE ATACAMA?
The Salar de Atacama is a high-altitude desert basin in northern Chile that, in 2017, supplied more than one-third of the world’s lithium, a key ingredient in the batteries that power cell phones and electric vehicles.
Rain and snow melt have for millennia washed lithium and other metals downslope, percolating into a salty solution that gathers beneath the volcano-rimmed salt flat. Miners pump that brine into shallow rectangular lagoons, where the sun’s ultraviolet rays and the desert air evaporate the water, leaving behind the battery-grade lithium that has put Atacama at the heart of the electric vehicle revolution.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH WATER?
Soaring lithium demand has raised questions about whether the salt flat can support current and future levels of production.