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Lithium sustainability in an energy deprived world.

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Lithium powers the energy transition as an essential raw material in the production of batteries for electric vehicles. Questions have emerged about the impact of lithium mining on the environment and local communities. This project sought to address key science questions and build a more responsible future in lithium. One of the two primary ways to produce lithium, the other is rock mining, involves pumping brine, a type of water that contains about ten times more salt than seawater, from lithium-rich aquifers. We focus on lithium extraction from a group of salt flats, or Salares, located in the high-plain desert plateaus and basins of the north-central Andes. This area is known as the “Lithium Triangle,” where greater than half of the global lithium reserves exist. The research assesses connections between fresh, brackish, and brine aquifer systems to evaluate the environmental impacts of lithium production. Remote sensing (satellite-based) technologies were used to document past and current hydrological and environmental conditions in the Salares. These analyses were paired with ground-based physical measurements, water isotopes, and numerical simulations to describe the distribution and movement of groundwater and surface water. The result is a data-driven framework that evaluates lithium extraction in these desert regions and the responses to these human influences within the context of natural influences.

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