Argonne partners with Chilean company SQM to better understand lithium life cycle

A groundbreaking collaboration with one of the world’s largest producers of lithium will yield critical insights into the lithium production process and how it relates to environmental sustainability.

As lithium is increasingly seen as a critical ingredient for more environmentally friendly products, particularly in the area of transportation, a new groundbreaking public-private collaboration will yield critical insights into the lithium production process and how it relates to long-term environmental sustainability.

SQM, a Chilean company that is one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, a leading scientific research institution located just outside Chicago, Illinois, have announced a collaboration that will study SQM’s process for producing lithium – with an eye toward better understanding sustainability challenges associated with lithium products.

Chile has long been a leading producer of lithium, which has become an essential element for the rechargeable battery market, among other uses. With the U.S. Geological Survey estimating that batteries comprise 65 percent of the end-use market for lithium, both SQM and Argonne, a pioneer in battery research, have a strong mutual interest in evaluating the environmental effects of its production.

“According to our sustainability plan, we want to look more closely at carbon emissions, water consumption and energy consumption in our lithium products, and see how it affects the rest of the value chain,” said Veronica Gautier, SQM’s head of innovation. “This information will help us achieve our goal of being carbon neutral by 2030.”

The formal analysis began last year and is using Argonne’s open-source modeling tool, GREET (Greenhouse gases Regulated Emissions and Energy in Technologies), with detailed data and technical insight coming from SQM. The results of the study are expected to be published later this year.

Jarod Kelly, a lifecycle analyst in Argonne’s Energy Systems division, which is overseeing the project, said that the partnership will provide for a much better understanding of the environmental impacts of battery production, because the analysis will be rooted in more complete data than is often available.

“It’s very exciting for us, because we can be assured that the kind of data we’re using is appropriate and relevant, and is really at the cutting edge,” Kelly said. “Working directly with an industrial partner like this is incredibly valuable.”

According to Michael Wang, director of Argonne’s Systems Assessment Center and a member of the project team, the analysis will also help address an overarching question in the global trend toward the electrification of transportation with battery electric vehicles.

“Often electrification is for the purpose of pursuing environmental sustainability. But we need to know more about lithium battery production before we can say we are truly on a sustainable path, or if we are just simply solving one problem but creating another one,” Wang said.

Gautier added that SQM, which produces lithium from the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat in the northern part of the country next to the Andes Mountains, would be making the study results publicly available.


“It is important for us to have full and complete transparency about how our process works, and we’re excited to leverage Argonne’s experience and expertise,” she said. “Sharing this information will have great educational value.”

SQM joins the IRMA initiative to deepen its sustainability commitments

SQM is the first lithium company in the world to join the IRMA certification, an initiative that promotes responsible mining practices, providing verification at a global level.

SQM has become the first lithium mining company to join the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) and is now a Pending Member in IRMA's Mining Sector. Full Membership will be attained when SQM commences a publicly announced independent audit against the IRMA Standard. This is a new step in the company's commitment to the environment, communities and the contribution to sustainable industries that is reflected in its robust Sustainability Plan and its Human Rights policy.

This Pending membership is part of SQM's solid process of working with a high standard of transparency and seeking public reportability of its objectives established in environmental matters, sustainable operation and social responsibility. It is also linked to the role that the company plays in the value chain of strategic industries for human development, among these being the revolution in electric vehicles and sustainable mobility.

IRMA works to promote responsible mining practices. To accomplish this, it provides verification and third-party certification of comprehensive environmental and social criteria for all extracted materials. It is a global standard that was developed over 10 years, in consultation with more than 100 stakeholder groups, including mining companies, affected communities, NGOs, labor groups, and companies that purchase mined materials. The standard covers all the processes involved and is applicable to all sizes of industrial mines in all parts of the world.

“SQM for years has advanced in building a sustainable operation with our environment, our communities and our contribution to sustainable industries, in the understanding that our refined lithium, iodine, specialty fertilizers and solar salts must comply not only with local laws, but also with the international standard. Our operation in the Salar becoming a Pending Member of IRMA helps us to consolidate best practices to address environmental, social and governance problems ”, affirmed Ricardo Ramos, CEO of SQM.

“We welcome SQM as a Pending Member and commend their commitment to be measured against IRMA's Standard for Responsible Mining”, said Aimee Boulanger, Executive Director of IRMA. “Given the importance of lithium in the green energy transition, and the cultural and ecological sensitivity of this region, addressing the interests of diverse stakeholders is critical. Transparent sharing of performance against an IRMA audit will provide information of value for all, and opportunities for the market to value improved practices. "

SQM will reduce by 50% the extraction of brine from the Salar de Atacama and by 40% its water consumption in all its operations

The company is committed to being recognized in 2030 as a green industry in all its business lines Within the framework of its Sustainability Plan, the company has already begun to reduce its consumption of continental water, which will translate into 40% less by 2030, and transform into carbon neutral lithium, potassium and iodine. In addition, in the operations of the Salar de Atacama, its brine extraction will be reduced by 20% immediately and by 50% by 2030, all with a strong investment in research and technology that will allow it to maintain leadership in its five business lines. With clear commitments, deadlines and an investment of over US $ 200 million, SQM announced a robust plan that deepens its commitment to the environment, the sustainability of its operations and the entire value creation cycle in which they participate. “We have worked for months to develop a plan, based among others on the sustainable development objectives set by the United Nations, which includes a series of initiatives throughout the company that seek not only to demonstrate, but also to guarantee, our total commitment and absolute with the environment and the integral and sustainable development of our operations and of all those who participate in them in some way. Much beyond that imposed by laws and regulations, ”said Ricardo Ramos, General Manager of SQM. One of the main initiatives contemplated in the Sustainability Plan is the reduction of continental water consumption in all its operations, reaching a reduction of 40% by 2030 and 65% by 2040. Meanwhile, in their work in the Salar de Atacama, they hope to reduce their water consumption with immediate effect by 20% compared to 2019, and by 50% by 2030. To achieve this, they will develop initiatives that improve their production processes to make more efficient use of continental water and will make investments that will allow them to use seawater in their nitrates and iodine production processes. All this considers investments of around US $ 40 million in a first stage and US $ 65 million in a second stage. Another of its focuses is the reduction of emissions. Although SQM is currently one of the lithium producers with the lowest carbon footprint -which contributes directly to the development of electromobility- they are assuming the commitment to be carbon neutral in all their products by 2040 and in the case of lithium, chloride of potassium and iodine by 2030. To do this, they will invest approximately US $ 100 million. Another very relevant point is the reduction of extraction of brines in the Salar de Atacama. This will be possible thanks to the strong investments made in recent years in technology and research that allowed them to improve their processes, yields and productivity in such a way that they will not only continue to expand their lithium carbonate and hydroxide production capacity in Chile, but also They will do so by lowering the extraction of brines from the Atacama Salt Flat. They estimate that this reduction in brine extraction will have no impact on their lithium production projections in the short and long term. In addition, they will strengthen their performance, which for years has guaranteed safe and inclusive working conditions, along with strengthening local economies and the development of neighboring communities, contributing to the creation of shared social value. They also commit to continue improving the monitoring systems of the ecosystems that surround them in order to provide an even more timely response. Finally, the reduction not only of the waste that its operations generate, but also that of its suppliers, workers, collaborators and offices in Chile and the rest of the world stands out. Ricardo Ramos pointed out: “These are commitments that we assume out of conviction, voluntarily and we believe it is important to invite the other companies that operate in the Salar to also take part in this challenge. Our business models are based on long-term investments that need to be recognized for their contribution and respect for communities, the environment and society in general ", and added" Our competitiveness is based on four fundamental pillars: A human team of excellence, with passion for our business; operate high quality natural resources; knowledge of our processes and continuous research and development; and finally, the permanent sustainability of our productive operations ”.

SQM contributes to the development of the SDGs of the UN Global Compact

We subscribe to the “United Nations Global Compact” with the aim of making concrete contributions to global sustainability, promoting and developing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through 3 pillars.

Integrating the Global Compact allows us to be part of the strategic bridge between the business world and the United Nations, in order to collaborate with the main catalyst of the transformations that are carried out in terms of sustainability, through the implementation of specific programs that contribute to a more sustainable society. In this sense, SQM defined its aspiration centered on three strategic pillars to contribute and advance towards a global sustainable transformation: Solutions for Human Progress, Our People and Our Environment. strategic areas SQM, through the Solutions for Human Progress axis, seeks to improve people's quality of life, focusing on the SDGs “Zero Hunger”, “Health and Well-being”, “Affordable and Non-Polluting Energy”, and “Climate Action”. The company, through various actions and the sustainable production of its five business lines, contributes to the development of these UN objectives. Through the production of potassium nitrate of natural origin, whose specialty fertilizer has the lowest carbon footprint on the market, it allows an efficient management of resources, since the application of fertigation helps to optimize the use of water resources. The production of iodine, meanwhile, contributes to the development of Health, because it is the main component of injectable contrast media for clinical examinations, and is used directly in the production of various drugs. Solar salts are currently the key input to supply solar thermal plants, whose properties of this natural product allow the generation of clean energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And the production of Lithium and derivatives used in electric vehicle batteries contributes to the development of Electromobility and the green automotive industry aimed at reducing global CO2 emissions. Within the Our People axis, SQM has proposed to strengthen the SDG "Decent work and economic growth" through the generation of more than 10.000 jobs in Chile and the world, promoting local work, offering an inclusive work environment and guaranteeing conditions safe work for all. In relation to the SDG "Sustainable City and Community", the mining company has focused its efforts on contributing to the creation of shared social value in neighboring communities, jointly building initiatives for their sustainable development, improving their quality of life. Within the Our Environment axis, the SDGs that SQM has proposed to develop is “Clean water and sanitation” where SQM is committed to reducing fresh water consumption by 40% for all its operations by 2030, and by 65% ​​by 2040 . In "Action for the climate" the mining company commits to being carbon neutral in Lithium, Potassium Chloride and Iodine by 2030, and in all its products by 2040. And finally, in "Life of terrestrial ecosystems", SQM is committed to responsibly managing the natural resources used, minimizing their direct impact on flora and fauna, and working together with communities to support the care and protection of these ecosystems. It is important to highlight that there are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are proposed in the Global Compact: End Poverty, Zero Hunger, Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable Energy and no Polluting, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.
SQM advances in certifying its sustainability commitments

The Sustainability Plan presented this year by SQM, contemplates specific goals

The company is in the process of international certifications in this area; This, within the framework of working with a high standard of transparency and public reportability of the objectives focused on environmental protection, social responsibilities and sustainable operation.

SQM's sustainability aspiration includes goals Our Environment, Our Communities and Our contribution to sustainable industries. Among the commitments that SQM assumed in "A Better Environment" is; reduce brine extraction by 50% by 2030, which started with a reduction of 20% in November of this year; reduce continental water consumption by 65% ​​by 2040, starting with 40% by 2030; and be carbon neutral in all our products by 2040 and in the case of lithium, potassium chloride and iodine by 2030.

To give greater transparency to progress in sustainable management, SQM was incorporated into the measurement and certification of its annual sustainability report, using the methodology proposed by the Global Reporting Initiative, GRI. Recently, the S&P Dow Jones Index announced the results of the evaluations carried out and SQM qualified for both the DJSI Chile Index and the DJSI MILA Pacific Alliance Index, which represents a great achievement for the company.

In this regard, the General Manager, Ricardo Ramos commented: “This is the first year in which we actively participated in the evaluation of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and we were accepted in two categories. This great achievement is the reflection of a work aimed at promoting sustainability as part of our development strategy. Our commitment to sustainability translates into challenging our operational practices and thus reducing the impact on our environment, deepening dialogue and building close and respectful relationships with neighboring communities, and achieving a high standard of transparency in everything we do. We understand that our efforts do not stop here, and we will continue our work related to environmental protection, social responsibility and corporate governance. "

Additionally, last September, the company began its self-assessment process in the responsible mining standard, Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, IRMA, in the Salar de Atacama, the first step towards certification in this demanding standard. IRMA is an international certification of sustainable mining that measures improvements in practices in factors such as health and safety of workers, human rights, community participation, pollution control, rights of indigenous peoples, transparency in the payment of taxes of the companies to governments, among other requirements.

In parallel, a diagnostic process began this month at CDP, an international non-profit organization that helps companies and cities to disseminate their environmental impact related to greenhouse gases, the use and consumption of water and biodiversity.

Likewise, a few months ago our Human Rights Policy was presented, an important first step in the process of materializing our commitments to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Business, within the framework of "Protection, Respect and Remedy" of The United Nations. The publication of this Policy implies awareness and commitment to the respect and promotion of human rights, and the beginning of a process of implementation and improvement of due diligence mechanisms that progressively identify, prevent, mitigate and remedy any eventual effect. adverse in human rights of our operations.

Along with publicly making ambitious and challenging commitments for a more sustainable management, SQM has decided to advance in the implementation of the best reporting and transparency practices.

SQM shows online the extraction of mining resources and environmental management of the Salar de Atacama

"SQM Online" is the name of the new virtual monitoring system launched by the mining company to report, on a daily basis, on the extraction of industrial water, brine and background information of interest in environmental matters.

Although the lithium sites located in the Salar de Atacama have always had an environmental monitoring system, for the first time in their history it will be available to all interested persons or organizations. The person responsible for this is SQM, which, along with complying with the provisions of the modification of the contract signed with CORFO in 2018, deepens the creation of shared social value, care and respect for people, the environment and communities. Thus, the mining company as of August 31 made the website “SQM online” available to the community; whose environmental monitoring system will allow access to parameters and variables from approximately 300 measurement points that the company had from the nucleus to the areas surrounding the Salar de Atacama.

In this milestone towards a more sustainable mining, SQM will report the control and monitoring of the environmental variables that are related in the operation and in the surrounding areas. Users will be able to access information on the extraction of brine and industrial water, meteorological data, environmental monitoring variables, and information of interest to learn more about the operation.

Javier Silva, SQM's Corfo Contract Manager, explains that: “the new portal has very diverse information, from continuous measurement systems for variables such as extractions and levels, and field measurements both by SQM personnel and by external entities validated for these Homeworks. The frequency of taking each of these records is governed by what is committed in the Resolution of Environmental Qualification (RCA) in force, and in the resolutions issued by the Superintendency of the Environment regarding online monitoring systems ”.

The executive added: "This online monitoring system, which meant an investment of US $ 1.000.000 for the company, aims to increase information on environmentally sensitive systems and their surroundings in order to improve knowledge of their hydrogeological dynamics and hydrological, and maintain control in case of observing deviations and take preventive and concrete actions that ensure maintaining the system as agreed in the environmental commitments. We are committed to making this information public as a means of verification regarding compliance with the extraction obligations, based on the established operational rules and with the aim of ensuring the sustainability of the Salar de Atacama ”.


What will you find on the page?

Through the page, online information will be published daily on the amount of brine extracted in accordance with the limits approved by the environmental entity. Information represented in daily and accumulated indicators of the controls of the established operational rule.

The site also shows indicators on the extraction of water from each well with environmental authorization in the form of average daily flow, specifying the current limit for each one. The information is based on the volume extracted from each well, which is recorded every one minute. Additionally, SQM has incorporated information on historical levels and, since March 2020, continuous levels according to the latest online monitoring resolution of the General Water Directorate (DGA).

The platform has state-of-the-art technology to report the daily extraction of water and the phreatic levels of each of the five wells with rights approved by the environmental authority.

Regarding environmental control and monitoring, SQM acts based on a robust environmental management system, which aims to verify that environmental variables evolve according to what was projected and aiming at the care of sensitive systems. For this, biotic variables and at least 225 hydrogeological monitoring points are monitored, and they continuously provide information on: water table levels, surface levels and flows, lagoon area, physicochemical parameters, among others.

Additionally, for a better understanding of our operation in the Salar and the importance of constant environmental monitoring in the area, a special section has been arranged that shows the conceptual model of the Salar, explaining in detail the hydrological cycle and the monitoring areas along with the variables monitored in each one of them.

SQM is a relevant actor in the sustainable development of the world with high participation in key industries for human development. Along these lines, the company is committed to a responsible and sustainable operation, minimizing its emissions, its use of water and contributing to caring for the environment. In this way, it seeks to minimize its direct impact on flora and fauna, working together with communities to support the care and protection of ecosystems.

To learn more about this new platform, go to:

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