SQM and Lithium in Chile
Santiago de Chile, waterfront center


The history of SQM and lithium begins in 1996 when the company began to produce potassium nitrate, made from sodium nitrate and potassium chloride.

Sodium nitrate was obtained in large quantities from the caliche that abounds in the Atacama Desert. However, potassium chloride was not produced in Chile and was purchased abroad, with Canada being the largest supplier.

The urgent need to have their own source of supply for potassium chloride led SQM's top executives to start exploring the local market. The solution was in the Salar de Atacama.

The North American company Amax and the Chilean Molymet tried to produce potassium, lithium and potassium sulfate in the territory without success; in 1992 both companies put out to tender their participation in the consortium called Minsal, becoming an opportunity for SQM. Thus, the percentage tendered was fully acquired by SQM and the company changed its name to SQM Salar.

Beginnings in Lithium

After the success achieved in the extraction of potassium chloride from the Salar de Atacama, company executives began to look at lithium, which in 1996 already presented an attractive international price for the operation. Taking advantage of the fact that the extracted brine had similar levels of potassium and lithium chloride, the decision was to produce lithium as a secondary product, which became increasingly important.

In those years, lithium had a sales growth close to 3% per year. It was used mainly to make lubricants, colorants and input to make glass or aluminum for construction.

However, given the great potential that the area had, different experts with experience in lithium were incorporated, and thus, in Salar del Carmen, the first plant was built to treat brines and transform them into lithium carbonate. The process involved considerably lower production costs than those of international competitors, considering that part of it was absorbed by the process to obtain potassium chloride.

In summary, from 1994 to 2017, SQM has invested more than US $ 1.800 billion in the Salar de Atacama. However, the success of the company has been the way in which the investments were made and the technology that was used to have today one of the most potassium chloride and lithium plants.

Full view from above, SQM Atacama facilities
SQM Lithium Separator