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Exploring the Salar de Atacama

The Salar de Atacama

The North of Chile has the biggest Caliche ore deposits in the world and is currently the only source of commercially-exploited natural nitrates on the planet.  SQM is the world’s leading producer of the specialty plant nutrition products, Lithium and Iodine. The company extracts nitrates and iodine from Caliche ore and potassium and lithium from the Salar brines at the Salar de Atacama in Northern Chile.

The Salar de Atacama desert in Northern Chile is the largest salt flat in Chile and is home to many rich minerals, despite the desert being one of the driest places on Earth. The Atacama is surrounded by mountains and has no drainage outlets. Located to the East of the Atacama are several volcanos, the most active being the stratovolcano – Láscar.

The Salar brines are pumped from beneath the saline crust in two different areas of the Salar. One of them has concentrated levels of potassium and lithium and the other contain high concentrations of sulphate and boron. The evaporation ponds show colour variations due to these varying amounts of salts in the water. The sub-surface brines are particularly rich with lithium salts and the dry and windy climate enhances the evaporation of the water, leaving the concentrated salts behind for the extraction of lithium salts. The Atacama benefits from its high evaporation rate compared to that of other salt plains of the world due to its privileged weather conditions they are able to operate all year round. Any brine that is not used is re-injected into the salt flats.

The Salar brines in the Salar de Atacama

Iodine is another of the products produced from mining the area. It is first extracted by heap leaching. Once the extraction process has taken place waste liquids from the iodine plants are then dried in the evaporation ponds to crystalize nitrates salts ready for collection. The recovered nitrates are then used for fertilizer, as well as pharmaceuticals, explosives, glass, ceramics and are also used for water treatment. The above image was acquired by UK-DMC2 on the 16th March 2016. You can see the latest data acquired by UK-DMC2 by viewing our catalogue.

The Chuquicamata Copper Mine in Chile

Above is the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile which is approximately 140km North East of the Salar brine: in regards to excavated volume it is known as the largest open mine copper pit and can be found North of Calama. Calama is a city and commune in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It is the capital of El Loa Province, part of the Antofagasta Region. Calama is one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5 mm. The mining sector in Chile is one of the pillars of the Chilean economy with copper exports accounting for one third of government income. Mining products include copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, iron and coal.

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