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The Lithium Triangle and why permafrost matters: A new level of understanding

Lithium is a key component in lithium-ion batteries installed globally in most rechargeable batteries. It is one of the main natural resources required for the transformation to green energy and the reduction of the consequences of the evolving climate crisis. The Lithium Triangle is thought to hold more than half of the world’s lithium reserves. More than 100 salars can be found in this area that covers northern Chile, Western Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. Considering that the demand for lithium is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years, the interest in lithium production from this area is enormous and various new projects are in development. However, not only is the Lithium Triangle located in one of the world’s driest areas, but the elevation range of several mountains and plateaus provides conditions that favour the presence of permafrost. The complex spatial and altitudinal distribution of permafrost in these high elevation ranges is intertwined with their hydrological regimes. The slow change in local permafrost conditions must be addressed in designing water management systems, which are critical for lithium mining to minimize environmental and social impacts. In addition, permafrost degradation can result in changes to geohazards that may impact infrastructure as well as operations and viable project closure concepts in this region.

Leveraging our two decades of experience working on mining projects in the Andes, BGC has developed a permafrost distribution model for South America at an unprecedented spatial resolution geographic extent. The result of the model highlights that vast areas within the lithium triangle are located in zones with likely permafrost.

As part of this work, we are using the award winning earth science cloud platform, Cambio, for visualizing the results of the permafrost distribution model and related decision making. The addition of the South American permafrost distribution model into the Cambio platform marks the initiation of our new Cryo-Cambio platform. This latest addition to Cambio focuses on geohazard and geotechnical asset management related to the cryosphere with the goal of elevating infrastructure management decisions, making them cost effective, defensible, better documented, transparent and easily communicated to regulators, project developers, management, designers and investors in challenging environments and a changing climate.

The model was recently presented at the Regional Conference of Permafrost and a recording of the presentation can be viewed here. BGC continues to work with various partners to improve the model and advance the understanding of the permafrost distribution in South America and its hydrological role.

This another example of a complex earth science challenge in need of an innovative solution, to contribute to ‘mining done right’. If you want to learn more about this novel permafrost distribution model, let’s chat.

Picture of Lukas Arenson, Dr.Sc.Techn.ETH, P.Eng.

Lukas Arenson, Dr.Sc.Techn.ETH, P.Eng.

Principal Geotechnical Engineer

Dr. Arenson’s main area of expertise is geotechnical, mountain permafrost engineering with specialization on frozen soil mechanics and geothermal modelling. He is a renowned expert in the dynamics of ice-rich frozen slopes in particular rock glaciers.