Lithium giants feud over competition, brine in Chile’s Atacama Desert

Salt flats in South America

Enlarge / A general view of Laguna Colorada located near the border with Chile, in the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia. The Uyuni salt flats are estimated to contain 100 million tons of lithium, making it one of the largest global reserves of this mineral, according to state officials at the Bolivian Mining Corporation. (credit: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Two of the world's biggest lithium producers, Albemarle Corporation and Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (otherwise known as SQM), are tangled in two disputes: the first over water rights in Chile's Atacama desert, and the second over ownership of SQM.

Both Albemarle and and SQM have significant operations in the Atacama desert, where some of the world's best lithium resources exist. As electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries become more popular, lithium resources are becoming more valuable. That has created some conflict in an industry that has long remained relatively quiet.

Who's drinking whom's milkshake?

This week, Reuters reported that both Albemarle and SQM have accused each other of overdrawing brine from the Atacama's underground aquifers. Both companies have operations in the Atacama's Salar, and their operations are just three miles apart from each other. The brine water that has been accumulating for millennia under the Atacama is lithium-rich, and companies pump it out and send the brine to evaporation ponds where heat extracts the water and leaves the reactive alkali metal behind.

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