Lithium mining’s water use sparks bitter conflicts and novel chemistry


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Replacing gas cars with electric ones is a main pillar of plans to fight climate change. But the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars come with a cost. Communities near the Salar de Atacama in Chile, where about a quarter of the world’s lithium is extracted from salty aquifers, say mining companies pose a serious threat to the local environment and their access to water. Mining companies strongly dispute those claims. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’ll explore the environmental factors at play in the salar and the differing perspectives on how best to measure impact. And we’ll hear from a new group of mining start-ups that claim they can use chemical methods—as yet unproven—to extract lithium without the same impact on water.

This is the first episode in a new series exploring the future of water.

A transcript of this episode, along with English translations of all Spanish dialogue, is available at Sign up for C&EN’s email series “Advancing in the Art of Science Communication” at Credits Executive producer/host: Kerri Jansen Writer: Matt Blois Audio editor: Mark Feuer DiTusa Story editors: Michael McCoy, Manny I. Fox Morone, Ariana Remmel Sensitivity editor: Sofía Jarrín Audience editor: Dorea I. Reeser Copyeditor: Heather Holt Translator: Fernando Gomollón Bel, Juan José Sáenz de la Torre Logo design: William A. Ludwig Episode artwork: SQM Music (in order of appearance): "Tinker Toys" by Colton Dewberry, "Pebbles Dance" by Roie Shpigler, "Earth & Heavens" by Sémø and Ian Post, "Street Dreams" by Julian Hartwell, "There's No One Else Just Like Me" by Shahar Guttman, "Eternal Sunshine" by Stanley Gurvich Contact Stereo Chemistry: Tweet at us @cenmag or email

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