Project Highlights:

  • Assessing the environmental sustainability of lithium (Li) brine extraction
  • Development of holistic understanding and sustainability indicators for high Andean salars
  • Transfer indicator-based approach to other salars in South America

Lithium brines, found in high Andean salars, are an important source of lithium essential for decarbonisation technologies. In recent years, the market for lithium – ion batteries (LIBs) has been growing rapidly. Future projections suggest high demand for lithium to use in electric vehicles and energy storage applications, which will require significant upscaling of lithium mining operations. Lithium brine resources, in the lithium triangle countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile), are significant and comprise over 50% of the global lithium resources. However upscaling of production capacity in a responsible and sustainable manner to provide the ‘wanted’ lithium in the next 10 years or so is challenging. One of these challenges is environmental sustainability, which cannot be determined easily.

Given the lack of data for high Andean salars, sustainability indicators could prove a useful way of determining whether adverse impacts are occurring. Building on existing techniques for such indicators, such as DRASTIC and others for saline Intrusion[1], this PhD would develop sustainability indicators, which are based on systemic understanding of the mass transport of brine from the basin to the salar. Readily available data, such as topography, rainfall, groundwater head, brine distribution will be used in their development.



Differing scales of mass movement to salars; typical view across salar


Using a complex, well understood example, i.e. Salar de Atacama a quantified conceptual model (water and mass balance) will be developed and based on its systemic understanding sustainability indices will subsequently be produced. Their purpose will be to quantify environmental impacts using ‘simplified’ but representative analogues to the system. The ‘simplified’ sustainability indices approach can then be applied to other salars where the understanding is less well developed. They will provide powerful tools for decision makers and industry in the lithium triangle countries and desired evidence for important global initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. SDG 12 on sustainable production and consumption) and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).  Field visits to both Salar de Atacama and other salar(s) will be required to collect the data to be used in this study.

Training and Skills

The following skills will be developed:

Water / mass balance calculation including arid-zone recharge calculations

Understanding of complex brine environments

Understanding environmental sustainability related to lithium production from brines and development of indicators to determine environmental sustainability

Understanding of the overall lithium market and its contribution to decarbonisation technologies


Year 1: Literature and definition of the problem; basin-scale data collection e.g. in Salar de Atacama; review of indicator methods

Year 2: Development of understanding of the salar of choice e.g. Salar de Atacama; quantification of mass balance and impact of brine extraction; Application of indicator methodology

Year 3: Finalising indicator methodology and application to other salars in the Li triangle countries

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The student will work with BGS staff to build on BGS’ network within South America with respect to Lithium brines. Visits will be undertaken to South America, particular the Atacama Desert, and other salars such as Uyuni, Bolivia and Hombre Muerto, Argentina. These trips will enable the hydrogeological setting to be understood as well as meeting with the key stakeholders to understand the environmental implications of the brine extraction.

Further Details

Please contact Andrew Hughes (aghug@bgs.ac.uk) or Evi Petavratzi (evpeta@bgs.ac.uk) for more details