The following is based on a previously published article from Revista Nueva Minería y Energía.

Chile, with Bolivia and Argentina, make up the so-called "Lithium Triangle," which has 56% of the world's lithium reserves. The Atacama Salt Flat stands out in this triangle, which in addition to holding 27% of global lithium reserves and the best quality of the mineral in the world, is an area of great sensitivity given its biodiversity and cultural importance.

For this reason, Ausenco is collaborating with several companies, including Albemarle, to contribute to the valuable knowledge about these saline ecosystems. Specialized in Chile in providing value-add advisory, sustainability and engineering services for the minerals and metals and industrials sectors, Ausenco is working to minimize ecological and social impact while supporting sustainable lithium extraction.

Albemarle, with more than 40 years in Chile, has been a pioneer in the development of the local lithium industry and in a model of community relations based on dialogue, sustainability, and the generation of social value.

"Some salt flats are ecosystems that have a high conservation value," says Patricio Olivares, practice lead of biodiversity in South America. "However, there is a lack of expert knowledge to mitigate the potential impact lithium exploitation in salt flats. We are generating this valuable knowledge for the industry in Chile, thanks to a pioneering project that we are developing together with Albemarle in the heart of the Salar de Atacama."

Given the high ecological sensitivity of the Salar de Atacama, in 2016 Albemarle decided to build new knowledge about plant species and their ecosystems through the project ‘Study of the life history of azonal plant species in the Salar de Atacama’.

"This Albemarle initiative includes a high-tech plant nursery, which was designed, built, and implemented by Ausenco's biodiversity team and commissioned in November 2021. All this to study the native plant species that grow in the Atacama Salt Flat and its surroundings," describes Carolina Vargas, biodiversity leader of Ausenco Chile.

"In just four years of studies, the nursery has made important advances in the knowledge of these species and their valuable habitat," says the expert.

Award-Winning High-Tech Nursery

"The nursery has a production capacity of 5,000 plants," says Olivares, "and irrigation is done through flood and recirculation tables, using greywater from Albemarle's treatment plant, a process that contributes to the efficient and sustainable use of water resources."

"All the native species chosen for reproduction in the nursery are also of traditional use and importance to the community," emphasizes Vargas. "The local communities around the salt flat use them for food, construction, medicine, crafts, and animal forage. Some of the species produced in the nursery include the azonal plants Sarcocornia andina, Triglochin concinna, Eleocharis pseudoalbibractatea, among others.

"In addition to developing a phenological cycle calendar for each plant species, laboratory tests were conducted to evaluate under what moisture conditions and other variables the plants survive and grow, as well as the different conditions for germination that are ideal for the seeds of various species," explains Vargas.

In this way, "the project has allowed us to research and deepen the knowledge necessary for the restoration of these ecosystems under extreme climatic and substrate conditions, as well as to study the behavior and response of the plants under different biotic and abiotic conditions," says Olivares. "As a result of this research, we have developed a methodological protocol for the sexual and asexual reproduction of these plant species, along with transplant protocols in the field or other areas, for ecological restoration."

In fact, the project was awarded the Pulso 2022 HUB Sustainability Award in January 2023, selected from more than 150 initiatives. The award corresponded to the category ‘Climate action and affordable, safe, sustainable and modern energy’ based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Next Steps for Innovation

At the beginning of this project, Ausenco and Albemarle closely collaborated with the local communities near the Salar de Atacama, facilitating substantial knowledge sharing.

Today, local species are being planted in the industrial area to improve workers’ environment. Additionally, progress is being made in the propagation of Aloysia deserticola (Rica rica), a species difficult to cultivate but of great community interest due to its multiple uses.

“After four years of completing its initial phase, the project is now starting a new stage focused on sharing knowledge and spreading various products. These include species reproduction methods and field transplant techniques, which will undergo testing”, says Carolina Vargas.