A New Lithium Mine Could Give Argentina a Green Gold Rush

The Vasquez brothers aren’t used to visitors. Their farm lies in the Puna, a vast plateau region in the Andes Mountains, some 12,500 ft above sea level and a full day’s drive to the nearest city. Catamarca is an Argentine province. The landscape is rugged and largely deserted. Llamas with big eyes roam a wide plain of mountains between them. There are only few trees, and Technicolor glows yellow under close sunlight.

But one day in 2016, a tall man in his 50s, speaking heavily Australian-accented Spanish, pulled up to the Vasquezes’ remote farmhouse. He told them that a couple of miles away, under the otherworldly surface of the plateau, lay huge amounts of lithium—the white metal essential to making the batteries needed to power electric vehicles and other clean energy technology—and he had a plan to extract it.

In the Andean Highlands of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia (which stretch to Peru), foreigners can often be a bad thing. Over the past 30 years, North American, European, and Asian mining companies have descended on the region to dig up its plentiful deposits of copper, zinc, silver, and lithium, of which 59% of the world’s known reserves are here. But mining it interferes with one of the world’s driest ecosystems: parts of the Puna sometimes go years without rain, and people here rely on a sparse network of rivers and salt lakes, fed by underground water stores built up over thousands of years. Mining projects have been taking water from salt lakes in northern Chile since the 1990s to get the lithium beneath. Although the impact of mining on groundwater is not fully understood by courts or communities in Chile, it has been argued that mining has reduced groundwater levels and threatened entire Indigenous villages.

Argentina is at the forefront of an international lithium rush. The country, which alone accounts for 21% of the world’s reserves, has just two mines in operation today, but 13 more are planned and dozens more are under consideration—the world’s largest lithium project pipeline. Argentina’s nascent boom reflects a rapid shift in the lithium market: a few years ago, lithium was a fairly niche product, used to make glass, ceramics, and lubricants. It was mostly sourced from established mines in Chile and Australia. According to the International Energy Agency (IAEA), the global energy transition will result in a 40-fold rise in lithium demand from now to 2040. This means that mining companies have to compete to get supplies from less developed countries like Argentina, Bolivia and Serbia, and Mali. Many fear local communities in these areas, including the Argentina Puna, home to some 50,000 people, are about to meet the same fate as those in Chile: seeing their resources pillaged and lands destroyed to serve the markets of richer countries—neocolonialism dressed up as a green revolution.

Stephen Promnitz was an Australian mining executive who told the Vasquezes that he could extract lithium and preserve their country. “He was very polite,” recalls Florentín Vasquez, a friendly 38-year-old in a floppy black sun hat, standing with his two brothers by a half-built adobe farmhouse in March 2022. “He says that they’re not going to use as much water as other projects—that they have a new method that has never been tried before in Argentina.”

A few miles away from the brothers’ farm, Lake Resources, the mining company Promnitz founded six years ago, is now laying the groundwork for a salt lake lithium mine—dubbed Kachi. California-based Lilac Solutions has provided technology that will allow the venture to begin producing lithium carbonate in 2024. The goal is for it to deliver approximately 50,000 tonnes per year by 2025. Traditional lithium mines rely on a simple two-year-long evaporation process to separate lithium from the salty brines, allowing massive amounts of water to escape; by contrast, in a few hours Lilac’s technology can recover up to twice as much lithium and return “virtually all” of the salt water to its aquifer, according to Promnitz.

Flamingos discovered in the brine lagoon close to Lake Resources’ Kachi project. Expansion of mining in the Andes may affect fragile ecosystems that are home to flamingoes, and other wildlife.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

This kind of process is known as direct lithium extraction, or DLE, and Kachi is one of the world’s most advanced projects to use it. Although the technology is not yet proven, it has been used in some interesting projects. Even with major lithium producers exploring DLE, including the world’s largest producer, North Carolina’s Albemarle Corp., experts say it has struggled to move from the lab to the field. Some investors are skeptical that Lake Resources will be able to scale up its ambitions in a timely manner. Promnitz, the CEO of Lake Resources announced his abrupt resignation in June. He tells TIME changes to the company’s leadership were “anticipated” ahead of starting construction at Kachi, and Lake’s chair Stu Crow says the departure “was for purely personal reasons.” Despite the upheaval, Kachi remains a crucial test case for DLE.

The economic incentives to roll out the technology couldn’t be clearer. At the moment, you can’t power electric vehicles or store renewable energy without lithium. A scramble to secure supplies has triggered a nearly 500% increase in the price of lithium carbonate in the last 12 months—though analysts say the price crunch may ease thanks to a glut of new lithium investments. Proponents say DLE’s faster, more efficient process is crucial to scaling up lithium production and preventing disastrous bottlenecks in the energy transition, slowing the fight against climate change. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has called it “a game changer” for the battery industry. David Snydacker, Lilac’s CEO, says it must succeed: “Conventional players have not been capable of delivering new supply and the volumes required for electric vehicles,” he says. “So by 2030, either there’s a catastrophe in the electric vehicle market, or the lithium industry has been completely transformed.”

A half-finished farmhouse is being built by the Vasquez brothers.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

There’s also a lot on the line for environmental justice. Climate advocates have long been troubled by the fact that obtaining so-called green minerals essential for decarbonization—lithium, cobalt, copper, and more—requires mining processes that often destroy ecosystems and harm communities. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dangerous labor conditions in cobalt mines have led human-rights activists to dub the resource “blood cobalt.” In Chile, NGOs call areas damaged by copper and lithium mining “sacrifice zones.” If Kachi works, it could help Argentina’s lithium sector avoid such nicknames. “If we’re going to make an energy transition, we can’t just repeat the sins of the past,” Promnitz says. “We’ve got to do it better.”

Bolivia’s leftist government, which controls the world’s largest lithium deposits but has feared the social and environmental impact of exploiting them, appears to see DLE as the solution. Officials announced in June that six DLE firms, including Lilac were allowed to compete with each other for contracts in lithium.

Argentine environmentalists warn that a better future for the country is not in sight amid all of the lithium rush. Most mining companies aren’t waiting for the rollout of cleaner tech. And projects like Kachi, which promise “cleaner lithium,” have yet to prove they can operate without sapping freshwater resources or altering a little-understood ecosystem. This uncertainty is weighing on the Vasquez brothers who have lived here for three generations. They hope that their descendants will be able to share this land with them one day. “People from outside can come and tell you, ‘Don’t worry nothing will happen,’” Florentín says. “But we’re the ones at risk.”

Locate a lithium mineIn South America look out for the huge, blue-green pools that contain brine. Such rectangular pools cover dozens of square miles in Chile’s Atacama desert, releasing tens of millions of metric tons of water into the air each year—at least 383.5 metric tons per metric ton of lithium carbonate produced, according to estimates by Argentine researchers. In Catamarca, the pools are currently a rare sight—for now: Argentina, which has struggled for decades with investor-spooking economic dysfunction, has been slow to develop its lithium industry. This province is home to at least 14 different projects.

Muerto, the salt lake at which U.S.-based Livent is operating since 20 years.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME The Hombre

Kachi is different than these old mines. Early on a bright morning in March, the contrasting colors of the site almost sting your eyes: a white salt lake, resembling half-melted snowfall, sits at the foot of a black volcano—all framed by pink and orange mountains and the blue sky. One large red drill bores holes into the lake’s salty crust to extract samples of brine from below.

When construction is complete in two years, there will be more extraction wells, and covered tanks for the ion-exchange process critical to DLE’s efficiency. “We’ll put the brine in those tanks for just three hours,” Promnitz says, squinting at the sun behind his glasses. Lilac Solutions produces tiny ion-exchange beads. Inside the lithium atoms will separate from water molecules and form bonds with each other. To separate lithium chloride, the beads can be removed from brine by being soaked in strong acids. Meanwhile the brine—around 800 metric tons of it per metric ton of lithium carbonate produced—can be returned to the aquifer, Promnitz says. This should, theoretically speaking, prevent groundwater loss as was reported in Chile. However, some freshwater is used later in the conversion of lithium chloride to lithium carbonate and shipped to battery companies.

The Kachi site has a number of ponds which hold water.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

Kachi is Lilac Solutions’ most sophisticated project. Its investors include BMW and Breakthrough Energy Ventures. This fund was backed by Bill Gates as well as Jeff Bezos. Lilac says it has completed a pilot project using the same beads and ion-exchange process somewhere “in the western U.S.” that produced 25 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent a year—that’s enough to make batteries for roughly 400 Teslas, according to estimates produced in 2015 by analysts at Goldman Sachs. Kachi will have a pilot plant that is slightly larger than the one at present. This gives Lilac an opportunity to demonstrate itself to the world market. Ford Motor Co., in a vote to confidence in April signed a non-binding agreement that will allow Lake Resources the purchase of 25,000 tons annually of lithium carbonate from Kachi. For the second half, Hanwa from Japan has also signed an identical memorandum.

It is likely just a happy coincidence that more efficient—and thus profitable—lithium-extraction methods also have a smaller land and water footprint than traditional approaches. Nevertheless, DLE has attracted green-minded investors, including the U.K. government’s overseas credit agency, which is in talks to provide 70% of the funding for Kachi’s construction. Snydacker says Lilac’s more sustainable technology “can help project developers to avoid the backlash” that some are now seeing from local communities to lithium projects. The use of brine by Chilean mining firms has led to costly legal problems. Anti-mining protests in Argentina are frequent in Catamarca, neighboring Jujuy, and Salta Provinces. This generates national headlines regarding the threat to local water supplies.

Argentine environmentalists are intrigued, but not comforted, by Lake and Lilac’s claims to reduce water use. “They are promising us it will have a lesser impact,” says Patricia Marconi, a Catamarca-based researcher at the country’s Environmental and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN). “But they don’t have anything published.” She says Lake has refused to share information with FARN staff. Uncertainty is fueled by the fact that Lake Resources has yet to release its environmental impact assessment report. (Lake Resources chair Stu Crouse tells TIME that the report is being compiled, and will be published in third quarter 2022.

Marconi’s concerns center on two issues: First, how will reinjecting massive quantities of brine into the aquifer affect the geological formations below the surface? In a 2018 paper, a group of Argentina-based researchers argued that reinjecting the once lithium-rich brines into the lakes is “a very dangerous oversimplification” of the potential environmental impact of the process. The paper states that processing brines for lithium removal could cause them to lose their acidity or introduce small amounts of foreign chemicals. And companies may have to inject spent brine at different points than where they removed it, essentially to avoid diluting the lithium content where they’re extracting.

A second question concerns how much water is needed to complete the process. Marconi warns that this water will likely be so-called fossil water—drawn from aquifers confined underground for thousands of years that are not fed fast enough by today’s precipitation to be replenished.

Marconi believes that this will have a profound impact on the fragile ecosystem of the salt lake lakes’ geology. In their enthusiasm for lithium, she says Argentina’s national and provincial governments are failing to do the research required to anticipate the impacts of a massive mining expansion, turning the country into a “free for all” for the lithium industry. “If we were really taking seriously the idea of not intervening in environmental systems that we don’t understand, there wouldn’t be 20 companies exploring in Catamarca. There would be 20 research teams exploring what’s going to happen,” she says. “Because the harms are irreversible.”

Catamarca can be trusted DLE’s environmental promise. Three hours north of Kachi—a teeth-chattering drive over rocky mountain roads—the yellows and greens of the Puna’s summer vegetation are suddenly interrupted by a strange stretch of black ground. It is home to the Valley of the Trapiche, which supplies water for the enormous Hombre Muerto Salt Lake. In 1997, Livent, a Philadelphia-based lithium mining company—a key supplier for both Tesla and BMW—built a small dam at the point where the river empties into the salt lake. The dam concentrates the fresh water for use in Livent’s mine, which today can produce up to 20,000 metric tons of lithium each year. On TIME’s visit in March—the last month of the Puna’s wet season—a trickle of water a few feet wide ran past the dam, through a parched, blackened meadow.

Livent constructed a dam at Hombre Muerto to stop the Trapiche River flowing.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

The project is Argentina’s oldest lithium mine—and it’s also the only one in the western hemisphere to use a form of DLE at scale. Its process is a hybrid: lithium brines are left to evaporate in pools but for “significantly less time,” according to Livent, than in traditional methods, reducing salt water loss. The brine is then passed through a DLE process and afterward, Livent says, “most” of the salt water is returned to “the surrounding Salar habitat.” Later, fresh water from the Trapiche River is used to separate out the lithium. The company would not disclose any numbers on brine use, but claims it has “not contributed to a decrease in brine or water [in the two decades it has operated] at the Salar.”

Román Guitián blames Livent for the valley’s destruction. Guitián grew up next to the river, in a small Indigenous settlement made up of his family and a few others. Before the mining started when he was 17, they used to fetch salt from Hombre Muerto, and raised llamas, goats, and sheep on the valley’s vegetation, says Guitián, standing at the edge of the salt lake next to a beat-up 4×4 that he uses to drive tourists around the mountains. “It was beautiful. But today there are no animals because it’s all dry.”

There are signs all around the river promoting a program that will restore the valley by replanting it and installing new irrigation systems. This was launched last year by Livent with Eco-Conciencia Foundation, a local NGO. And yet, in early March, at an event at Hombre Muerto attended by Argentine officials and Tesla executives, Livent confirmed plans to double the plant’s lithium production capacity by the end of 2023. Two more expansions are planned by the company, which aims to increase its production capacity to 100,000 tonnes by 2030. In investor materials, Livent claims that it will incorporate “re-use” and “re-cycling” to limit its fresh water use in the future. But it also says that the later stage of expansion will involve “a more conventional pond evaporation-based process.”

During TIME’s visit, workers were busy digging a pipeline from the Hombre Muerto plant to another river, Los Patos, around 10 miles away. “They destroyed one river and now they’re going to destroy another,” says Guitián. He is currently pursuing legal recognition of an Indigenous community, Atacameños del Altiplano, formed with a few dozen other local people. This would grant the community the constitutional right to manage natural resources within their territory. He’d use it to defend the environment from “irresponsible mining” practices, he says. “If the day comes when we don’t have water, we’ll have to emigrate.”

Indigenous activisit Román Guitián stands near the Hombre Muerto salt lake.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

Catamarca governor Raúl Jalil says the province has learned from the impacts on the Trapiche River. “There are things which maybe went the wrong way in the past, but we are correcting those,” he says. “We are exerting more control now.” Companies are now required to undergo monthly environmental monitoring, and if problems show up, projects will be halted, Jalil says. Livent says it has already installed monitoring stations at both the Trapiche and Los Patos river “to track water levels, recharge rate, and water chemistry to help us use water in a sustainable manner.”

Jalil, however, says he does not plan to restrict the number of lithium projects approved in the province, or ban traditional, water-intensive methods in new mines, unlike Bolivia’s government. “All projects, from agriculture to tourism, have their environmental impact, and we can’t change the whole global energy system without mining,” he says. “The way forward is to reduce the impact more and more, through technology, innovation—at the same time as [continued] extraction.” He wants Kachi to be “a leader case” there.

Promnitz claims Kachi will use water more efficiently than Livent has: Livent’s global fresh water use for 2020—based mainly off of the Hombre Muerto project, its only active lithium carbonate mine—was 72.9 metric tons per metric ton of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) produced. Lilac claimed that 18 tonnes of water were used per LCE. Lake claims that Kachi’s rate of production will be much lower than that and plans for brackish water and recycled water will further reduce water consumption.

Promnitz began his career working as a mining engineer. He also believes that the brine injection process isn’t as hazardous as many environmentalists think. He says the process works in a similar way to that used to increase oil recovery in the U.S. Shale sector. However, the less dense sediments in salt lakes should mean that it is more important to inject the brine into the areas where oil is being recovered. “It’s not like [the brine]Only one formation is suitable for human life. We’re just taking the lithium out, and putting back exactly the same brine that was there before.”

An activist has written “Get off our Land” on the aqueduct of Livent’s Hombre Muerto Lithium mine.

Sebastián López Brach for TIME

In conversation, Jalil and other local officials in Catamarca appear far more concerned with mining’s economic potential than its environmental risks. Argentina’s northwest has historically been a backwater, receiving little investment from either Buenos Aires or overseas. Political leaders see mining as an opportunity to make a difference. Companies like Livent paid for roads, bridges and other infrastructure that was previously impassible during severe weather. Lake is currently in discussions to employ local workers as well as contract services such as laundry facilities with local businesses. Though wary of unfulfilled promises, the mayors of both El Peñón and Antofagasta de la Sierra, Kachi’s two closest towns, state versions of the same phrase: “If the company grows, the town should too.”

It’s understandable that local leaders would take that approach, says Juan Carrizo, director of the Eco-Conciencia Foundation, which aims to “resolve socio-environmental conflicts” around mining. “It’s easy to defend the environment from places like Buenos Aires, where you have internet, roads, gas, and transport,” he says. “But here, the development of the community is also on the table.”

Antofagasta de la Sierra is witness to a heated debate about mining. Proudly displayed bumper stickers proclaim “I’m a big friend of mining,” while graffiti urges “hands off our land and water.” Florentín, whose farm sits near the Kachi site, is conflicted. He says that if environmental problems did arise from the project, he wouldn’t be sure what to do. “We can try to pressure the company to leave … but I don’t think we want to do that,” he says slowly. “There are a lot of people around here who need work, and they come and tell me that. So I feel kind of cornered.”

We enter a global mineral mining boom. The demand for carbon-sparing technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels and electric cars is greater than that of their dirt counterparts. They also require more and a wider range of minerals. Already, since 2010, the International Energy Agency says, “the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50% as the share of renewables has risen.” That gives the global mining industry a chance at a rebrand: from environmental villain to climate savior.

In an age of greater environmental awareness, many communities have begun to oppose mining projects. In January, after weeks of mass protests, the government in Serbia—thought to be home to Europe’s largest lithium deposits—shelved a $2.4 billion project led by mining giant Rio Tinto, which could have provided 90% of Europe’s current lithium needs. Though Rio Tinto is now attempting to reopen talks with the government, which won re-election in April, the episode is a bad omen for plans—such as those being sketched by governments in the U.S. and E.U.—to increase domestic mining of lithium and other “green” minerals.

There is a risk that energy transition will exacerbate well-established dynamics where harmful mining is exported to countries with less civil society. Rio Tinto purchased a DLE-based, lithium-based project in Salta (Argentina) for $825 million two months after the Serbia mine had been shut down.

Environmentalists believe that the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to make more drastic changes in our consumption. We would have less lithium if there were fewer electric vehicles and we relied on public transport more and traveled less.

However, this vision will not stop the expansion of mining in Catamarca. That leaves communities uncomfortably reliant on companies sticking to their new green promises—and officials holding them to account. If they don’t, the fight against climate change, and the droughts and heatwaves it will bring, will be irrelevant here, Guitián says. “In the future, we’ll have lithium, we’ll have electric cars, but we won’t have water,” he says. “We end up right at the same place.”

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