Image: Albermarle project: Ecological Research & Nursery Operation

Minerals & Metals3 min read

Albermarle project: Ecological Research & Nursery Operation

Salar de Atacama, Chile
2020 - 2023

In the middle of a salt flat, in the driest desert on the planet, Ausenco and its client Albemarle – one of the world's largest lithium producers – have built a high-tech plant nursery to study the native species associated with this inhospitable landscape. After only three years of study into the unique plant species of the Salar de Atacama – the site of this remarkable nursery – important advances have been made in the understanding of these species and their habitat.

Ausenco's biodiversity team was responsible for the design, implementation, and operation of the nursery, which opened in November 2021. In January 2023, the project was awarded the Pulso 2022 HUB Sustainability Award, selected from more than 150 initiatives. The award was in the category "Climate Action and Affordable, Safe, Sustainable and Modern Energy" of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The significant results achieved to date are the result of a close relationship and exchange of knowledge between the engineering team, scientists, and members of the indigenous community of Peine, who shared their traditional knowledge, passed down from their ancestors.

"The project is designed to improve the knowledge of the ecosystems of the Salar de Atacama and its species", explains Patricio Olivares, the Forest Engineer and Biodiversity Practice Lead at Ausenco. "We are learning about new species, how to reproduce them, the habitat conditions in which they live and the relationships they have with variables like soil moisture and salinity".

The Albemarle operation is located in the heart of the Salar de Atacama, in the so-called Lithium Triangle of South America. Atacama is Chile's largest salt flat and the world's largest and purest active source of lithium. It is estimated to contain 27% of the world's lithium reserves. Albemarle, with more than 40 years of experience in Chile, has been a pioneer in the development of the local lithium industry and a community relations model based on dialogue, sustainability, and the generation of social value.

The Salar de Atacama is also an area of high ecological sensitivity. That’s why in 2016 Albemarle voluntarily committed to provide new knowledge about plant species and their ecosystems through a project called "Study of the life history of the azonal plant species of the Salar de Atacama", of which the nursery is part.

Albermarle biodiversity project in Chile

The nursery has a production capacity of 5,000 plants, with irrigation is provided by recirculating grey water from the Albemarle treatment plant – a process that contributes to an efficient and sustainable use of water resources.

All the native species produced in the nursery are ecologically important and are regularly used by the local communities surrounding the Salar for food, construction, medicine, handicrafts, and animal fodder. Some species produced in the nursery include: Nitrophila atacamensis (endangered), Sarcocornia andina, Triglochin concinna, Geoffroea decorticans (chañar), Prosopis chilensis (algarrobo) and Alcantholippia deserticola (Rica Rica).

In addition to developing a calendar of each species’ phenological cycle, laboratory tests were carried out to evaluate under what conditions of water availability and salinity the plants survive and grow, and the different germination conditions that are ideal for the seeds of each species. The nursery enables research into the restoration of ecosystems in extreme climatic and substrate conditions, as well as studies into the behavior and response of plants in different biotic and abiotic conditions. As a result of this research, a methodological protocol has been developed for the sexual and asexual reproduction of these species and another for ecological restoration.

The project also includes the transfer of knowledge to the 18 indigenous communities surrounding the Salar de Atacama that are grouped together by the Council of Atacameño Peoples.

The project is operated by workers from the Indigenous community of Peine, under the supervision and guidance of a forestry engineer expert in conservation and a botanist specialized in vegas (large grassy plains). We continue working in the exchange of scientific knowledge with that of the Natives Peoples, and finding the best way, together with our client, to make the nursery a point of interest for those who visit the Plant of the Salar de Atacama.