Chilean lithium has the smallest carbon footprint on the planet
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The South American country is the world’s second-largest lithium producer after Australia and holds approximately 45% of global reserves of this mineral, which means that new business opportunities will undoubtedly emerge over the coming years.
Lithium production in Chile is concentrated on the Atacama Salt Flat, which holds one of the most highly disputed reserves of this mineral on the planet and is the production centre for the country’s two lithium-producing companies, Albemarle and SQM.
Sustainable lithium extraction
A study conducted by the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the engineering firm Dictuc calculated the carbon footprint—meaning greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—of the two operations in the Atacama Salt Flat in order to compare it with the footprint of lithium production in Argentina and Australia, the country’s two main competitors.
The study found that the per-unit GHG emissions of lithium produced from brine extraction in the Atacama Salt Flat in 2020 amounted to 4,022 kg CO2 equivalent per ton of lithium carbonate. Of that total, the unit emissions of the Atacama Salt Flat operation represent 12%, while chemical plant processes account for the remaining 88%.
Those emissions depend mainly on two distinguishing factors: the quantity of fossil fuel used to generate electricity on the national power grid and factors intrinsic to the processes, inputs and reagents used.
According to other studies cited by the authors, in the Oroz Salt Flat in Argentina, the same indicator is much higher, amounting to 6,650 kg of CO2 equivalent per ton of lithium carbonate produced from brine, while measurements for Australia range from 15,690 to 24,200 kg of CO2 equivalent per ton.
“The advantage of having a small carbon footprint is that car and battery producers require low-carbon footprint inputs even today, which will only increase in the future. And the idea is that those inputs will be rewarded, or rather, high carbon footprint inputs will be punished; that is the main reason for mining companies to purchase renewable energy,” explains one of the study’s authors, Universidad Católica academic, Gustavo Lagos.
The expert also anticipates that this trend will only accelerate in the short term, which could cut the local carbon footprint indicator in half in five years.
Chile produced 162,477 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent in 2021. Future demand forecasts for lithium and the development of electricity storage infrastructure and electro-mobility solutions have attracted investor attention to this mineral.
Chile deposits many different minerals, from copper to rare earth elements. To learn more about lithium mining in Chile, read this article.
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