Covering almost 850 square miles and containing a third of the worlds lithium deposits the Salar de Atacama Salt flat in Chile is an area of research, mining and processing of Lithium.
Lithium mining and processing does come with some environmental challenges. To really understand how to make the process more sustainable would mean a greater understanding of the science behind the water in the region the lithium is found. Researchers have recently been monitoring water usage on a much longer time scale, while also paying attention to major events, like droughts, in the region in an attempt to become more aware of the environmental impact.
The method used in the Salar de Atacama is the traditional brine extraction. The process occurs by pumping lithium-rich brine to the surface, forming a series of evaporation ponds. Through the heat, the water evaporates, leaving a high concentration of lithium and other metals such as magnesium.
The evaporation process usually takes 18 months, which is very time-consuming, not to mention the water footprint that can affect local communities.
Another means of extraction that can pose environmental risk is the one related to ore mining. Companies which need heavy machinery to extract lithium from hard rocks beneath the surface.
This, again, can result in water wastage and cause disturbances in the local ecology. Direct lithium extraction using techniques such as nano filtration is faster and has a much lower environmental impact