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See how electric cars are changing this South American desert

The Atacama Desert of Chile is known as the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle industry. It is one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, with an estimated 8 million tons.

The mines there already supply a third of the world’s lithium need, and they are boosting production.

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But it comes at an environmental cost, stressing the area’s unique biodiversity and drawing protest from Indigenous communities. These concerns were reflected in the draft constitution Chilean voters rejected Sunday, which included provisions targeting mining.

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The U.S.-based Albemarle Corporation has been mining in Chile for decades. Now, it is in the process of trying to double its lithium production in the region, part of a rush to meet soaring global demand for the lithium carbonate used in electric car batteries.

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Visitors stand atop a large mound of salt byproduct from lithium production at a mine in the Atacama Desert last week.

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John Moore/Getty Images

At Albemarle’s Salar Plant, brine is pumped from under vast salt flats to a series of evaporation ponds.

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A lithium mine supervisor inspects an evaporation pond of lithium-rich brine.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Scientists are continuing to study the impact on the local water supply.

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Pools of brine containing concentrated lithium carbonate stretch across the lithium mine atop the salt flats.

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John Moore/Getty Images

During an 18-month process, the liquid is moved through 15 ponds, eventually turning from dark blue to bright yellow, with a lithium concentration of 6 percent.

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Pools of brine containing lithium carbonate and mounds of salt byproduct stretch through a lithium mine.

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John Moore/Getty Images

A lithium mine worker inspects a pump at an evaporation pond in the Atacama Desert.

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John Moore/Getty Images

The evaporation process produces large quantities of salt byproduct, much of which is reprocessed and sold. This includes potash used in fertilizer and bischofite used in pavement.

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Albemarle Corporation spokesman Marcelo Valdebenito holds a bottle of processed lithium carbonate at a lithium mine in Salar de Atacama, Chile.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Lithium mine workers move salt byproduct.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Local Indigenous communities worry the immense amount of water used in the operations threatens desert irrigation and farming methods that have sustained them for centuries.

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Salt byproduct from lithium production is transported from a mine.

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John Moore/Getty Images

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups are raising red flags about how these outfits operate and their fallout, even as the groups recognize the need for more lithium.

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Salt byproduct piles up.

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John Moore/Getty Images

This huge mine will likely remain crucial to meeting electric vehicle production targets. But firms like Albemarle are also moving quickly to diversify.

Political tensions in Chile and demands by U.S. automakers for sustainable and domestic supply chains have metal companies prospecting far and wide.

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Albemarle already mines in Nevada, at the only operating U.S. lithium mine, and it is moving aggressively along with its competitors to launch more lithium mines in the U.S.

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An evaporation pond of lithium-rich brine lies atop a lithium mine in the Atacama Desert.

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John Moore/Getty Images

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Credits

Editing and production by Karly Domb Sadof and Sandhya Somashekhar.