Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world’s largest salt flat, at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level.
The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves according to a 2009 Foreign Policy article by Joshua Keating. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar ideal for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. Following rain, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, 129 kilometres (80 miles) across.
The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of flamingos. Salar de Uyuni is also a climatological transitional zone since the towering tropical cumulus congestus and cumulonimbus incus clouds that form in the eastern part of the salt flat during the summer cannot permeate beyond its drier western edges, near the Chilean border and the Atacama Desert.
The Salar contains a large amount of sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium (all in the chloride forms of NaCl, KCl, LiCl and MgCl2, respectively), as well as borax. With an estimated 9,000,000 t, Bolivia holds about 7% of the world’s known lithium resources; most of those are in the Salar de Uyuni.
Salt production at the Salar.
Lithium is concentrated in the brine under the salt crust at a relatively high concentration of about 0.3%. It is also present in the top layers of the porous halite body lying under the brine; however, the liquid brine is easier to extract, by boring into the crust and pumping out the brine. The brine distribution has been monitored by the Landsat satellite and confirmed in ground drilling tests. Following those findings, an American-based international corporation has invested $137 million to developing lithium extraction. However, lithium extraction in the 1980s and 1990s by foreign companies met strong opposition from the local community. Locals believed that the money infused by mining would not reach them.
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