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Atacama high desert dry lakes are rich source of lithium carbonate

Chile's Atacama desert currently produces the largest market share of the world's lithium carbonate, which are processed into the lithium used to make advanced batteries, as well as other products including medicine. The brine lakes of this remote desert region are the lithium equivalent to the Ghawar oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

Lithium in Abundance

R. Keith Evans sets the record straight on how much lithium there is in the world.

By Bill Moore

To extract the lithium, the viscous fluid below the crust is pumped out into a series of evaporation ponds that further concentrate the minerals until is reaches a "greasy" consistency that is high in magnesium and 5% lithium. This is then transported out of the remote high desert to the coast where it is further refined to pure lithium, which is then shipped in barrels or bags to industrial customers for use in everything from ceramics to steel to batteries.

Because Mother Nature does most of the work in producing lithium carbonate, it is the "greenest" source of lithium we know of. Any other source requires significantly more energy for processing, thus increasing the price.

As to the issue of American lithium resources, Evans pointed out that a single geothermal well in southern California can produce enough lithium to meet all of the world's current demand for lithium. There are also lithium-bearing clays called Hectorite and oilfield brines that contain commercially-viable concentrations of lithium, though they would be more expensive to produce compared to the high desert brines in the Andes and Tibet.

How much lithium is there in the world in Evan's professional analysis? He estimates it at 28.4 million tonnes of lithium, which is equivalent to 150 million tonnes of lithium carbonate. Current world demand is 16,000 tonnes.

His conclusion is that "concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded."

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