Lithium Extraction and Purification from Geothermal Brine; An Analysis of the Destabilization of the Chilean Lithium Extraction Network in the Salar de Atacama Region using Actor-Network Theory

Author: ORCID icon
Curran, Maurice, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My technical work and my STS research are both connected through lithium extraction technologies. My STS research delved into current lithium mining operations in Chile, while my technical work investigated a new lithium extraction technology for use in the Salton Sea area of California. Both works focus on lithium extraction, but they differ in the age of the technology and the location of implementation. My STS research focuses on traditional lithium mining, which has been in use for decades, in Chile. My technical work involves implementing a novel lithium extraction technology, recently developed by a group of UVA professors, in the Salton Sea. While both works approach lithium extraction using different methods and in different locations, the theme of lithium technologies remains consistent.
My technical work explored the implementation of a novel lithium extraction process from geothermal brines. Current and pending lithium mine projects only cover half of the projected 2030 lithium needs. New lithium supply pathways are necessary as the world transitions to cleaner energy solutions. The United States currently manufactures only 1% of global lithium production. My capstone team designed a lithium extraction process that can be incorporated within the United States to provide a domestic source of lithium. Our process is also combined with an existing geothermal power plant to minimize land use and disruption to neighboring communities. We worked in conjunction with a group of UVA professors who designed a new sorbent material for lithium extraction. This new sorbent greatly minimizes the use of water in the process; current lithium mining operations have large water requirements. We hope this project helps facilitate the clean energy transition while improving upon the environmental and societal issues surrounding current lithium operations.
My STS research also explored lithium extraction technologies but from a different geopolitical perspective and with conventional technologies. In Chile, lithium mining operations use traditional lithium extraction technologies which are disruptive to the local environment and communities. I employed Actor-Network Theory to examine Chile’s lithium extraction network. My claim is that Chile’s lithium extraction network is unstable due to an imbalance of power between different actors within the network. My paper examines how the Chilean government built the lithium extraction network and prioritizes certain actors over others. The goal of my research is to identify the pitfalls that led to an unstable lithium extraction network for future lithium extraction projects.
Working on both the technical project and my STS research greatly benefitted my understanding of both works. My technical project gave me an understanding of lithium’s global importance in the clean energy transition. In designing the process, I was able to analyze the use of water in lithium extraction processes and evaluate the importance of location. My STS research allowed me to explore the environmental and societal impacts of lithium extraction technologies in greater depth. Incorporating the environmental and societal considerations that were learned from my STS research allowed me to develop a more sustainable technical project. Learning the technical details related to our lithium extraction process in the technical project allowed me to better understand the destabilization of current lithium extraction networks. Both projects allowed me to develop my understanding of current and developing lithium technologies around the world.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Lithium, Lithium Extraction, Lithium Purification, Geothermal Brine
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