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Foto: UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition

Field research in Chile #1 | On to the northern mining town of Calama

Julian Rocke ,
10 maart 2023 - 11:51

Students and professors of the UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition are visiting the Atacama salt flats in Chile this spring, the place with the largest lithium reserves in the world. For Folia, several group members are reporting on their trip. This week: masterstudent Julian Rocke (24, international development studies). 

Julian: “The year 2022 ended quite hectic for me: analyzing many policy documents, establishing connections in Chile, and of course, the practicalities of organizing a trip to the other side of the world. My personal research project is qualitative and aims to understand the relationship between German climate policy and lithium governance in Chile. What is the nature of the relationship between the countries and their agendas? Are there common interests? Or are there other stakeholders and factors that might have a greater influence on lithium governance in Chile? These are some of the questions that will guide my analysis and I hope to find answers in Chile.

Why lithium?

The energy transition requires large amounts of raw materials. However, clean energy technologies require many more metals and minerals than working with fossil fuels such as oil and coal. As the demand for "cleaner" raw materials increases, social and environmental tensions arise where these raw materials are extracted. The same is true of lithium, a light metal used to produce batteries for electric vehicles and power grids. Demand for lithium is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades.
The Mining for the Energy Transition research project is interdisciplinary, looking at economic, environmental, technological, social, political and business aspects of the energy system, energy transition and sustainable goals. The research project is funded by ENLENS ( Energy transition through the lens of Sustainable Developments Goals), one of the interfaculty research priority areas of the UvA.

Upon arrival in Santiago, everything fell into place quite quickly – aside from some occasional language barriers (who would know that a sim card is a “chip” in Chile)? Going for interviews, making new friends, getting to know the country – everything went by quickly. 

Before I knew it, I sat on a plane from Santiago to the northern mining town of Calama for a field trip with SQM – one of the largest producers of lithium carbonate in the world. Together with a reporter from Taiwan, a journalist from France, and a PhD student from Germany we headed to one of the communities in the region.

We were warmly greeted by Pamela, who on behalf of the community expressed her frustration of feeling abandoned by the Chilean government. Many social development projects are not getting the funding they need from the government. Pamela sees lithium mining to have a small window of opportunity, whilst agriculture doesn’t come with an expiry date. However, the limited availability of water in the region makes agriculture harder and harder every day. The technical and financial support of SQM in setting up irrigation ponds that irrigate the alfalfa farms that feed the communities’ cattle is an initiative that shows how mining and agriculture can co-exist.


After this visit we traveled onwards to see the SQM operational site in the Atacama Desert, where the company’s hydrogeologist and plant manager explained the process of lithium extraction. Brine - salty groundwater - is pumped up from a depth of over 30 meters from more than 380 active wells into massive solar evaporation ponds. Here a process of natural evaporation concentrates the mixture until a 4.5-6% lithium concentration is reached in the last pond.

On the last day we traveled to the local capital Antofagasta, where SQM’s refinery process takes place. After this, the lithium carbonate and hydroxide are exported to mostly East Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan, where the batteries that end up in our electric cars, e-bikes and e-scooters are manufactured. 

To appreciate and analyze the energy transition, it is crucial to understand the complexities of the lithium value chain and the stakeholders that are involved. This week I was lucky to be able to witness some of the very first steps of this chain. Let’s see what the coming weeks will bring.”


Read episode 2 of our series Fieldwork in Chile next week.

Foto: UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition
Community irrigation project for alfalfa production
Foto: UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition
Evaporation ponds in SQM Salar, where lithium extraction takes place
Foto: UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition
Two workers in front of lithium carbonate powder