SQM’s Commitment to the Sustainable Production of Lithium and Community Relations

SQM’s Commitment to the Sustainable Production of Lithium and Community Relations


The challenges to making electromobility sustainable center around carbon, water and energy footprints. The company is committed to both these challenges and to building strong ties to develop the communities near its operations through diverse initiatives.

With the widespread growth of lithium ion batteries, electromobility has become a viable alternative in recent years, helping mankind reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

In this context, lithium plays a key role in developing this technology. Its chemical properties make it one of the most important elements to satisfy the need for clean transportation, which is already a tangible reality today.

More than 5.6 million electric cars hit the road every day, representing 0.4% of all vehicles worldwide. By the year 2030, this number is expected to rise to 120 million, equivalent to over 30% of global new car sales.

“One of the main facilitators of electromobility has been the lithium ion, which boasts a relatively low weight and volume in comparison to other metals that can potentially be used for manufacturing electric batteries. This is why demand for lithium has grown considerably over the past few years,” remarked Pablo Pisani, Communications, Sustainability and Public Affairs Manager at SQM.

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, the electrification of transportation could help reduce emissions by 430 to 550 million tons of CO2 by 2050, which is equivalent to the emissions from 80 to 100 million internal combustion vehicles.

However, along this path towards mass electromobility we must not forget that the primary objective is sustainability and caring for the environment. For electromobility to be sustainable, the challenges of the manufacturing process center around: Reducing the carbon footprint of operations–a challenge currently faced by all companies. Since 96% of the energy used by SQM is solar, lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate produced from brine have a very small carbon footprint.

Another critical concern is the water footprint. When talking about water resources in the lithium industry, it is important to understand the difference between fresh water and brine. Brine, from which lithium is extracted, cannot be used for farming or human consumption. Also, a large part of the extracted brine is then reinjected into the system. “Contrary to popular belief, SQM’s water footprint is quite small because the process consists of concentrating the brine and, therefore, the direct use of fresh water is really limited,” commented Pisani.

Over the past 15 years, there has been an unprecedented rise in energy consumption around the world. The exponential growth of renewable energies has surprised even the most ambitious forecasts, drastically changing the energy sector.

For SQM, energy efficiency is also key. And, unlike typical mining processes that rely on energy consumption for blasting, crushing and extraction, SQM uses solar radiation over a much longer processing time, which translates into a smaller energy footprint.

Work with Communities

Just like SQM plays a fundamental role in the sustainable extraction of lithium, it is also essential for the company to cultivate and maintain good neighbor relations. In this spirit, it develops and participates in different programs designed to foster the social wellbeing of its neighboring communities.

“Community ties are built on a foundation of transparency, respect and mutual trust, and are evidenced by the interactions with neighbors while developing community programs,” commented Pablo Pisani, Communications, Sustainability and Public Affairs Manager at SQM.

The Company also actively publicizes its projects in the community in order to keep neighbors informed and gather feedback and concerns, which has helped generate bonds of trust with neighbors.

SQM’s community work can be categorized into the areas of historical heritage; education and culture; and social development. Within these areas, each year the company looks for new initiatives that provide better opportunities for communities.

One project worth highlighting from the past two years is the “More Opportunities, More Education, +Language” program. This successful initiative developed by the + Matemática program in the district of San Pedro de Atacama gave rise to the “More Language” program. After launching a pilot program in the second half of 2018, it then became one of the most important milestones over the nine years of hard work and cooperation between the Municipality of San Pedro de Atacama and SQM. This new phase of the program is designed to help new generations improve their literary skills by working hand in hand with language teachers, deploying and strengthening diverse tools to motivate boys and girls to become interested in reading and writing.  “The work carried out from 2008 to now demonstrates SQM’s conviction that education is one of the most important factors in developing our society,” the executive pointed out.

In this same area, the company has also implemented an education equivalence program in partnership with the municipality as part of its work related to education. To do so, it signed an agreement with the Crea + Foundation to support an education equivalence program for youth and adults in the district of San Pedro de Atacama, through the Municipal Labor Office (OMIL). In 2018, a total of 95 students earned their general equivalence degree.

Culture is also present in SQM’s work with communities. For the company, arts and culture have the ability to improve the quality of life of people and communities. For years, perhaps decades, it has been a potent tool for driving the emotional and intellectual development of individuals who find in artistic expression a language and vertex from which to comprehend the world and connect with others.
Another initiative worth highlighting is CasaTelar; a caravan of textile art that travels around the Salar de Atacama that arose from the community’s aspirations to revitalize traditional Atacameño trades and lifestyles.

Another important initiative is the well-known Winemakers Cooperative training program to continue producing and marketing Ayllu wine. After several years working with the Toconao winemakers, the wine project reached a new phase, leading to the creation of a cooperative in 2017, which was formalized in 2018. This step has professionalized the process, improved the quality of the products and set a high standard for all its wines. The next step for the cooperative is to work hard on marketing and sales in order to transfer the culture and history of the Lickan Antay Farm Culture to the rest of the country.