One of the first Margaret Anstee Research Fellows explains how some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world have become a key battleground in the energy transition
Why did you choose to focus on lithium extraction in South America?
Lithium is a key mineral used in the production of powerful batteries – essential for decarbonising technologies such as electric vehicles and to store renewable energy to ensure a stable supply (for example, for solar arrays at night). As a strategic resource it has become highly relevant in the past seven years, since around the time I started my PhD on lithium extraction in Bolivia. So my research topic is directly related to the climate change agenda, which I am really passionate about.
The next five years are going to be crucial for lithium and it will be interesting to see how transport and energy technologies are going to develop. Is lithium going to be a massive game changer in how we produce and consume energy?
Lithium is not that rare on the planet, but the only areas where it can be mined profitably are in Australia and in the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ which holds more than half the world’s resources of lithium: the immense salt flats that cover part of Argentina, Chile and especially Bolivia.
My research focuses on the geopolitics of the energy transition. I’m fascinated by the social, environmental and political aspects of how lithium is being mined in South America. It’s the paradox of how finding solutions to climate change is creating new problems. We can only fight the worst effects of climate change if we achieve the energy transition efficiently and fast, but at the same time local communities in these countries will bear the ecological impact of this. And they are not necessarily going to benefit from it.
Lithium mining from salt flats is portrayed as relatively environmentally friendly because it happens through natural evaporation by the sun, but it uses a large amount of water pumped from under the salt crust and releases harmful chemicals into the environment. Local communities are already seeing water shortages and conflicts. Mining also has the potential, if unchecked, to damage the Uyuni Salt Flats, world famous as a tourist attraction, one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. Large enough to be seen from the moon, the Uyuni Salt Flats may seem desolate and empty, but they are part of a unique ecosystem. In our rush to decarbonise the economy, we run the risk of polluting this environment and changing the salt flats forever, creating an imbalance in the flora and fauna and affecting the local quinoa economy.
How people’s perceptions of these landscapes have changed in the past forty years is fascinating. The salt flats used to be empty spaces with no economic value because they were unsuitable for cattle and agriculture; then they became a tourism hotspot; now lithium extraction could be the biggest economic boom these countries have ever seen. I’m comparing how different governments have created strategies to manage the process of extraction, and I’m interested in how Chinese companies and government agencies are becoming involved. Are local citizens benefiting from the wealth that the boom brings? And will they themselves be benefiting from new technologies for their energy needs?
You previously worked as a researcher in public policy for a UN development agency and for NGOs looking at social movements on South America. How have you found your transition to academia?
Academia gives me a unique chance to explore the most interesting questions, which you can’t do in public policy-oriented research, where you need to focus on the very specific aspects that you’re going to lobby on. In that sense it is a privilege to have the opportunity to take more time to think about the big questions underlying a situation. I explore the hard questions, show different perspectives and propose new ideas. I would like to connect more with public policy debates, in the UK for example, which is already in an energy transition, to discuss how and why they are doing it. There are a lot of connections between my research and what is going on in the world right now.
What were your expectations of Newnham when you got the job at the Margaret Anstee Centre?
I knew very little about Newnham before, except that it was a women’s college with a strong relationship with the suffragette movement. At Newnham, the people really inspire me. I feel privileged to be there. When I arrived, I was surprised by the number of extraordinary women from different backgrounds with whom I had a chance to interact and for me that was fascinating: people from physics, science, computing, AI, all these women together talking in informal environments, for me that is really enriching. I’ve been growing a lot in this environment. I also really enjoy mentoring students interested in mining, energy transition and lithium in South America.
How has the MAC benefited you and your career?
Working at the Margaret Anstee Centre is a wonderful opportunity for women early career researchers; it’s a hub that allows scholars with different interests and agendas to come together and debate things. It’s such a privilege to have this space to have your own agenda and develop it and think of the important and critical questions and debate them with others. In July, I launched the ‘Lithium and Energy Technologies Forum’ in the Centre. It’s an interdisciplinary network of researchers and industry stakeholders working on lithium and energy transition technologies (read more online).
Margaret Anstee was a very inspiring woman. She had courage, passion and commitment to social progress. She worked in different and very complex countries and she did it because she had a passion for it. For all of us at the MAC it is an honour to be part of her legacy.
Dr Maartje Scheltens