- Richard Fisher and Javier Hirschfeld
- BBC Future
Underneath the screen you are reading this on is probably the distilled essence of a salt plain.
Millions of years ago, volcanoes deposited minerals over vast tracts of South America. Then the water leaked through the rocks and formed huge lakes.
Then came the cycles of evaporation and deposition, which generated vast salt flats in which there is one of the most sought-after minerals in the world: lithium.
With the rapid increase in the use of batteries for electronic devices and electric automobiles, the demand for lithium and other basic materials in the industry is accelerating.
Lithium is changing the fortunes, and more specifically, the landscapes of countries that have the material in abundance.
In Bolivia and Chile, tons of lithium in the salt flats gave way to huge fields. Evaporation pools for mineral extraction fill the landscapes with striking colors.
In this series of photographs, we show these places, whose surprising features inspire many artists, writers and architects.
The first images are of South American salt marshes, which contain hundreds of millions of tons of lithium.
In Salinas Grandes, Argentina, indigenous people see natural pools as “eyes” that have a spiritual meaning.
Politicians and business see the enormous economic value of salt pans, even if they haven’t been fully exploited.
The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, is home to what is perhaps the largest single store in the world.
The brine is pumped to the surface and evaporated to concentrate minerals. It is then filtered and chemically treated to extract lithium.
In Chile, places like the Atacama Desert have helped the country become one of the world’s top producers.
Its mines compete with those in Bolivia as one of the largest lithium deposits in the world.
By the evaporation method, it may take more than a year to maximize the lithium concentration.
Industry has grown considerably in the Atacama Desert.
A truck travels between brine pools in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
In Germany, lithium is extracted from zinnwaldite, a silicate mineral. The deposit is considered small by world standards, but for Europe it is rated as large.
In Turkey, state-owned Eti Mine Works extracts lithium from the residues of the production of boron (a mineral).
Turkish production is unlikely to be a major source of lithium. However, it represents one of several efforts to find alternative reserves.
Demand for lithium is likely to follow as the need for batteries, like those used in automobiles at a factory in China, also grows.
As the world embraces more electric cars and other battery-operated technologies, what new landscapes can be created out of this?
This article was originally published in English on BBC Future. Can access the original on here.
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