Salt of the Earth: How one artist is reimagining lithium mining salt by-products from the desert

Salt of the Earth: How one artist is reimagining lithium mining salt by-products from the desert

Salt. A simple, familiar substance that conjures images of fine white crystals, the taste of potato chips, and the scent of an ocean breeze. It is also a by-product of lithium mining in the Atacama Desert in Chile. While salt by-product will not find its way to a dining table anytime soon, it is being used to create magnificent works of art through collaboration between our Salar de Atacama site and artist Mále Uribe.

Uribe, a Chilean architect and artist based in London, has made it her mission to repurpose salt by-products from lithium mining in the desert to showcase its earthly value. "These materials and art pieces intend to connect us back to the incredible energy of minerals that have been shaping our planet way before humans appeared.", Uribe states on her website.

When lithium is mined, the salt formed is composed of halite and sylvinite, which Uribe mixes with other components to create “bricks” she then forms into sculptures, some currently displayed in galleries worldwide.

Her collaboration with Albemarle started in May 2022 when Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile professor Álvaro Videla introduced Uribe to Carlos López, Head of Engineering, Innovation and Development, and Marcelo Valdebenito, Corporate Affairs Manager at Albemarle Chile. Along with the introduction, Videla also played an integral part in the development process of the salt bricks.

With salt from our site, Uribe created two extraordinary pieces: a totem, built from components crystallized in the lithium pools, and a mural, which is currently on display at a museum in Santiago and will soon find a permanent home at Albemarle’s Latin American Headquarters. Of the mural, López states, “the way that Uribe patterned the salt bricks creates an illusion of the piece being in motion and constantly evolving, which reflects the forward-thinking here at Albemarle.”

Plans are underway to commission more pieces from Uribe, one of which is expected to be installed for public view in the Andrés Sabella Gálvez International Airport of Calama. Valdebenito hopes “the creative work and design of this unique art will highlight Albemarle’s continuing efforts to develop other applications for our salt by-products and serve as an example of the contributions we can make as a company. It is also a fitting example of the circular economy.”