Photographer reveals dark side of lithium extraction in South America

It also tells the grim tales of our electric future.
Ameya Paleja
lithium extraction site.jpg
Aerial view of evaporation pools of the new state-owned lithium extraction complex, in the southern zone of the Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia, on July 10, 2019.

Getty Images 

Lithium is a crucial component of electric and electronic devices these days. German aerial photographer Tom Hegen has captured the bright colors seen during the process of extraction being conducted in the salt flats in northern Chile, Euronews reported last week.

Demand for the world's lightest metal, lithium, has recently shot up after companies and countries have decided to turn to electric modes of transportation in the near future. Lithium offers a great mix of energy density and weight-to-charge ratio, making it an ideal component of electric batteries.

While this is aimed at reducing carbon emissions and harm to the environment that occurs during the process of oil and gas production, lithium extraction is not ultimately environment friendly either.

The extraction of lithium

The lithium-ion battery has many advantages, and metal is also abundantly available but only in some parts of the world. One among them is the location called Lithium Triangle, which lies under the geographical boundaries of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.

To drill out lithium, miners drill holes in these salt flats and then pump out lithium in the form of a salty brine, which is left in artificial lakes and ponds to evaporate. Tom Hegen, a photographer who is interested in capturing the extraction, refinement, and consumption of resources, chartered a small plane and flew high over Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile to capture the lithium extraction process at the site.

The bright colors represent the different stages of the extraction process, with the brine looking pinky white which then changes to turquoise as the water evaporates. At the highest concentration, the pond looks bright yellow.

The not-so-green lithium

The extraction might be pretty to look at, but the realities on the ground are not. In the paradox of clean electric vehicles, we reported last year, how the process is water intensive and uses 500,000 gallons (two million liters) of water for every ton of lithium produced.

This would probably still be okay in an area where water is abundant, but in the salt flats of Chile, it is taking water away from local communities and local flora and fauna. What's worse, these artificial ponds also leach lithium which contaminates sources of water that these communities have access to.

The increasing demand for lithium has meant that countries such as Australia and China which have access to large reserves are raking in revenues from its export while also pushing governments in Zimbabwe and Portugal, which have albeit smaller reserves. to take similar routes, Euronews reported.

In Portugal, mining permissions have been against the public agreement among promises of generating jobs for locals. Experts, however, warn that even abundant reserves of lithium will not be able to meet the future demand for electric transportation. Relying on a single technology could spell doom for electric transportation just a decade from now.

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