Visit of the lithium plant at the Salar de Uyuni / Rio Grande

September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last thursday I finally had the chance to visit the lithium pilot plant. It is situated at the south-eastern edge of the salt lake “Salar de Uyuni”, the next village is Rio Grande and about 8 km away (google earth doesn’t let you zoom in properly in some parts of Bolivia, but for those how want to know it exactly, the plant is about 80-100 km south-east of Uyuni). The pilot plant is not run by a privat company but by a division of Combibol, the state’s mining company. As you may already know from other articles, the bolivian government wants to mine / extract the lithium carbonat and other materials (like e.g. potassium carbonat) on their own, which means without foreign investors and companies.

At 5 am, like always a bitter cold morning on the bolivian Altiplano, I met with 2 dozens workers in front of the Uyuni Combibol office. A bus picked us up and brought us during a 2 hour ride over the dark salt lake to the pilot plant. Though temperatures where around 0 degrees celsius, there was no heating in this bus and everybody was wrapped into thick blankets, I took my sleeping bag. It was a great feeling when at around 6 am the first sun rays hit the bus and made us feel a tiny bit warmer.

At the gate of the plant, I got a protection helmet and the access card. Things were surprisingly easy (when I showed the accredition email I had received from La Paz) and people were friendly, though the first thing the security boss said to me was “no entrevistas” – no interviews. But I hadn’t come to interview people but to take photos, and that seemed not to be a problem at all – I photographed from 8 am until 3pm.

Here a first view on the pilot plant from the hills right behind it.

The basic huts in the foreground are mostly workshops, kitchen and dining room. The U-formed building in the middle right seems to be for administration, but most rooms are still empty. Maybe this is also the building where future laboratories will be installed. Unfortunately (not only from the photographers point of view), there are no laboratories installed yet. As fas as I know all chemical analysis etc. is still being done in the capital La Paz. The highest building behind the U which is still under construction seems to be “the plant”, could be the industrial part of the area at a certain point. In the background you do not directly see the salt lake, but the “pampa”. The pampa surrounds the salt lake and is a dry, relatively hard, brown ground. In the wet season (appr. december – february), the salt lake as well as (in parts) the pampa gets flooded by water, but usually only by a few centimeters. During that time, one can only drive (with a jeep) through some parts of the lake.The rest of the year one can drive the salar without limitations.

But back to the lithium plant: a lot of construction work has happened in the last months, but as one can see it doesn’t really look as if they were already working there and producing lithium carbonat. Anyways I had imagened that it would be smaller, with less workers on the site etc, so I myself was rather surprised when I arrived.

I wasn’t allowed to be completely alone on the site, so there was always a soldier with me (they had installed a military post at the plant). Couldn’t resist photographing them, though it was maybe not allowed…They received polaroids as small gifts, one thing that pretty much always works…

By the way, one can see how harsh the light is here on the altiplano. Hardly ever a cloud on the sky. And I was running out of 160 film…So with the 400, I could almost blindly tell: f 16,  1/500s . Is that a good title for a book? Just kidding.

I also portrayed this man who brings with his truck water to the plant. As the plant is not connected to any electricity or water net, theyhave to bring in frequently gas and water, as well as food, constructin material etc.

At lunch time, one worker took me out to the piscinas.

A street on salt.

Driving over pure salt.

The Piscinas are pools which get as big as football fields. They are located 10-15 km north of the pilot plant area, in the middle of the salt lake. These pools are also still under construction, though the workers said they are about to finish the first big pools soon.

It’s not really easy to photograph these pools, nor digitally nor on film… But you can see a flat area in the middle that is surrounded by a 2 meter high wall, all constructed with salt.

The elevated walls that divide the different pools are also used as streets for the trucks.

I know, I haven’t explained yet what these pools are for. So, in the next weeks plastic foil with a membrane will be spread out on the ground of the pools and they literally become something like giant swimming pools. The workers will then not put water into it, but salt brine (Salzlake) that can be found a couple of meters under the surface of the salt lake. Through the heat of the sun the water of the brine will then evaporate, and different layers of salt will remain. This is very much a short short version of the process but like this and by adding other chemicals, eventually lithium carbonat and some other products could be the result. I’m writing “could” because one has to see if it’s really gonna work like that and how much time from now it’s really gonna take until lithium carbonat, and not only some tiny bits, are produced for the world market.

Most of the workers live at the pilot plant on the shore, but some do stay out on the salt lake close to the “evaporating pools”. At his “campamiento” we had lunch, and I could take some portraits of the workers.

Polaroid of my driver.

The campamiento. Please don’t forget that a night, it’s very often under 0 degrees celsius but the “wagons” where the workers sleep are extremely basic and have no heating.

That’s pretty much everything you can see there, nothing too exciting. But for my project it was an interesting day, and I shot almost 2 dozens of films.

Some more snapshots.

(I’ve only very limited picture editing software with me, no fancy photoshop CS, so I can’t really do even basic corrections or brighten shadows… )

At the end of the day, I got a soup for dinner and …

…the Simpsons were on TV.

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