Uyuni was one of the three angles of the lithium-triangle in South-America. Chile, moreover the region of Atacama is the second.
San Pedro de Atacama is a little village with access to the Atacama desert, which houses the lithium salt lake. Albeit the incredible beauty of the natural marvels of the desert, San Pedro itself has some interesting stories as well; of which even I cannot tell all due to safety issues.
Renewable Energy – Renewing the Future
But I can describe this, it starts with gaining access to the village, which takes a long desolate road through the desert, along lonely villages and windmills. Renewable energy sources are the first thing appealing my attention as soon as I crossed the border from Bolivia to Chile. Solar panels were on the roofs of the first city I drove through, and now windmills are spread around the road into the desert. Chile has taken lots of steps in the energy transition, as the country’s path to the future.
At small scale, this is where San Pedro de Atacama comes in. Desolated in the desert, the little village is self-sustaining, responsible for its own energy and water. Solar photovoltaic panels and solar water heating systems on the roofs are but an extra layer of the city, not a rarity.
Lithium – The biggest
One part of wandering around in Atacama will take me to the salt lakes where lithium is about to be discovered, and already extracted by Chile’s national lithium company SQM.
Chile is the world’s second biggest lithium provider, after Australia; and it is determined to enforce its position in order to become the global leader of the lithium market. SQM already received permission to ramp up its production, which was a complicated process.
The growing supply will answer the growing demand for lithium in lithium-ion batteries, used in your phone, laptop, and electric car, among many other applications. Lithium-ion is the dominant battery technology still.
But at the moment, the only part in the supply chain provided by the three countries in South America is extraction, primary industry. All these countries lack the means and opportunities to evolve into gaining a position in the other phases of the supply chain, hence evolving into a secondary industry, such as constructing batteries or even electric vehicles. The latter would make it possible to really profit of an industry where the world will profit of.
This is an industry that has to be watched closely in order to ensure social, economic, ecological and human rights of this region are repected. Since lithium extraction can have a huge impact on all of these aspects; and an energy transition should not be called sustainable if these rights are not respected; by no means.
Such as happened with the other mining industry in Chile, the primary mining industry of the country, but that is for next stories.
Some articles I wrote regarding the topic were published, here: