The lithium triangle

April 5, 2013


Argentina, Bolivia and Chile hold the planet’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries used to power a range of technologies from cell phones to laptops to electric cars.

Industrial production from the so-called “lithium triangle” is already high. Chile is the world’s leading source of the metal, turning out around 40 percent of global supply, and Argentina is another significant producer. Output from the Andes may soon rise after Bolivia – the country that holds an estimated 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves – opened its first lithium pilot plant in January.

Reuters photographers recently traveled to the research and production sites in those three countries, all located in high altitude salt flats at around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, and wrote about their experiences.


Salar de Atacama, Chile

By Ivan Alvarado

Nelson sculpts alongside the dirt road that runs by his house. In the shadows I can see different figures of volcanic rock exhibited for sale to the few tourists who pass by here. His daughter Luz and her children keep him company as his hands transform another piece of stone into a miniature of a church steeple.

“He was chosen twice as the best worker,” Luz says.

“Best worker at what?” I asked.

“At the lithium plant.”

Apart from sculpting, Nelson works at one of the two lithium plants that exist on the Atacama salt flat. Born in Santiago, he moved to Toconao more than 30 years ago. He first learned to be a craftsman, and then became a mine worker. In the back of his house is a small plot where he grows fruit and vegetables. There is also an area dotted by several small wooden huts, and a portable swimming pool to cool down in. Inside, a huge stereo takes up a large part of the wall next to a flat screen TV.

Nelson doesn’t like to talk about lithium on his days off. He works seven days, and gets seven off. As a mechanic in charge of keeping the machinery running, he’s never actually seen lithium. He only knows that the raw material is extracted from the salt flat, and that his job allows him time to produce his crafts and maintain his plantings.

As we fly over the salt, I point to the pilot where to turn to get the best view of the brine pools. I pull my jacket hood tight over the headphones he gave me, and am able to photograph without being bothered by the strong wind.

The image is amazing – rectangular pools of different sizes and colors that are so sharp in the high altitude air. Their outlines look like futuristic petroglyphs etched on the immense salt flat, crowned by the Andean cordillera. The clouds hovering above us work as a filter to soften the sun’s rays.

Looking like giant batteries lying in the middle of the pale desert, the brine pools offer an unusual landscape. These pools could produce for the next 1,500 years, and currently satisfy 41% of the world’s lithium demand.

Experts say that if the world’s petroleum supplies are exhausted in 50 years, lithium could well play a leading role as the raw material for clean energy. That could turn into reality the description of this Lithium Triangle that straddles the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

By David Mercado

As rich as it is spectacular, the Uyuni salt flat has the enchantment of undiscovered beauty that transcends the camera, and reaches into the soul.

It was more than five years ago that I first visited Uyuni, landing in an old Douglas DC-3 on a dirt runway. Today, two airlines host four flights a day to the brand new Joya Andina (Andean Jewel) airport, whose 4,000 meter-long paved runway places Uyuni closer to foreigners from all over. Among those who fly here are tourists, technicians and suppliers of a pilot plant built by the government of Evo Morales to exploit lithium at the world’s largest reserve.

The mining project is managed by the National Administration of Evaporitic Resources (GNRE), with the goal of extracting the mineral from the more than 10,000 square kilometers of salt to produce lithium carbonate, manufacture lithium ion batteries, and even make electric cars, the dream of Morales.

To reach the pilot plant from Uyuni town meant three hours of driving on a noisy, dusty road. A worker there guided us around the plant and to the brine pools located a distance away in the middle of the white desert. It was a tour with a strict security protocol, since it is a site of technological research.

The 21 brine pools break the monotony of the landscape. There will be as many as 80 in the coming months, considerable in size but all but imperceptible in the salt flat’s immensity.

The Bolivian government wants to play a leading role in exploiting the Uyuni salt flat whose surreal landscape has become one of the main tourist destinations of this impoverished country. Uyuni was historically known as the railroad capital because it was a main destination on Bolivia’s first rail line connecting it to the Pacific coast. The town boasts a huge train museum-cemetery behind the old station.

There are some 20,000 residents of the town, many of whom work in tourism either as guides, drivers, travel agents, or employees at the few area hotels made of pure salt blocks. I visited one of those hotels, the Luna Salada, or Salty Moon. It’s rated four stars and gives excellent service.

The tourism industry has grown thanks to the new airport and to a new highway connecting it to the colonial city of Potosi. On our trip to Incahuasi, an island covered by cactus in the middle of the salt flats, we shared a 4X4 Land Cruiser with Canadian, Belgian, Danish and Bolivian tourists. We passed groups of motorcyclists and a lone Japanese adventurer crossing the flats on a collapsible bicycle.

The salt flats cause strange sensations, something like overwhelming and endless solitude, and a new and different visual experience. All of this happens within a silence that seems to swallow even the soft cooing of the wind blowing across the altiplano. Maybe that’s why it’s a favorite destination for adventurers and dreamers.

At dawn on Incahuasi Island, I climbed to the top of the hill thinking I would be the first, but there were already tourists on top who didn’t want to miss an instant of the spectacular sunrise, when the dark plain turns white and the silhouette of Thunupa volcano appears. The camera records testimonies, but the images are permanently engraved in our souls.

People call them the Marvelous Salt Flats. It wasn’t for nothing that the first man who walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said during the Apollo 11 mission that he noticed a white blotch on the Planet. Back on Earth, he later visited that white blotch with his family. It was the Uyuni salt flat.

Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina.

By Enrique Marcarian

It was the second time in two years that I followed those 360 km (223 miles) of zigzagging mountain roads, some of which we could only drive at a slow crawl, to reach the 4,000 meter high (13,123 ft) white plain. We arrived at the peaceful solitude of the treeless plateau by passing marvelous landscapes of changing colors.

On the route towards the Salar del Hombre Muerto, or Dead Man’s salt flat in English, we passed only small groupings of no more than a dozen straw and adobe huts, equipped with solar panels and satellite TV. Vicunas and llamas constantly crossed our path, and in one spot we encountered a pack of llamas of which one in particular blocked our way. It took an agreement of salty crackers in exchange for clear passage for us to continue.

We reached the miners’ camp, which was little more than a few shipping containers turned into living quarters, with the maximum of comfort possible in this inhospitable region. The normal working day begins with a medical checkup for all the 20 men and one woman living there, followed by the distribution of workers to the different working positions on the salt flats. Most of the current work is related to the exploration and research in preparation for the future extraction of lithium at this mine, planned for 2015.

Lithium mining consists in basic terms of extracting lithium carbonate from the underground brine. The liquid is pumped into a plant where it goes through a process of selective absorption.

Depending on the light, the salt flat reflects a blinding light and offers magnificent sunrises and sunsets crowned by unusual cloud formations. On clear nights and due to the uncontaminated atmosphere, the constellations are clearly visible.

We visited a typical highland village called Cienega Redonda with no more than 60 inhabitants. Many of them are relatives of miners, and the women live a pastoral life breeding sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas, for their meat and wool. I noticed one woman standing outside her stone hut and corral. She was Marta, and contrary to what most locals do when they see a camera, she kept on with her chore of herding her sheep, without paying any attention to me. But then I realized why – Marta is blind.

Just a few meters from her hut, there is a school where some 15 children of different grades are taught by three teachers. They also have their meals in the school.

After a few days spent with the workers and exploring the entire extension of the salt flats, I ran across a new pack of llamas on my return. I recognized among them the same one that had stopped us days earlier. This time he had no reservations about sticking his head into the car in search of the same crackers that he charged us for passing the first time. It seemed clear to me that he had been expecting us.

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