SQM pledges water and brine extraction reduction

Leading Chilean lithium producer has said it plans to "deepen its commitment to the environment and sustainability" of its operation in the Salar de Atamaca in northern Chile.

SQM's operation in the Salar de Atacama, Chile

SQM's operation in the Salar de Atacama, Chile

The plan includes water use reduction at its production centre, where there is increasing concern about continental water availability in one of the most arid places on Earth, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

"We have worked for months in the development of this plan which is primarily based on the sustainable development goals of the United Nations," said CEO Ricardo Ramos.

The company aims to reduce its water usage in all operations by 40% by 2030 and by 65% in 2040 and at its lithium brine evaporation operation in the Salar de Atacama by 30% immediately compared to 2019 levels, and 50% by 2030.

To do so SQM plans to improve its production processes and making investments totalling US$105 million in two phases to use continental water more efficiently, such as the use of seawater in the production of nitrates and iodine.

In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the company pledged to produce carbon neutral products by 2040, with its lithium, potassium chloride and iodine products achieving this by 2030 following investment of $100 million.

SQM has invested in technology in recent years to improve yields from its brine extraction process to allow it to expand production and reduce its brine extraction requirement.

The company has voluntarily decided to reduce its brine extraction by 20% from November as it aims to reduce this 50% by 2030. Its brine extraction has become a point of conflict with lithium regulator Corfo. The company was adjudged to have extracted more brine than permitted by the environmental regulator in 2016 and subsequently saw its $25 million compliance plan rejected by a court, forcing it to formulate a new one.

SQM produces 75,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) per year. It is advancing projects to expand its lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate plants as it aims to reach a production level of 200,000tpy LCE.

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