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Where Batteries Come From?

Most people don’t know or don’t care about how batteries work or where they come from. As long as they work when we need them to work. Where would we be without batteries? Nowadays everything from our phones, to our computers, and now our homes and cars all rely on batteries. Batteries come in all different shapes and sizes. Serving a range of different purposes in our lives.

But when we talk about batteries, we are really referring to the materials extracted from our earth. Batteries made from lithium are the most commonly used batteries in portable consumer electronic devices and electric vehicles. Making lithium one of the mot valued commodities in our economy.

You can make batteries from different kinds of materials. But lithium batteries stand apart from other battery types for their high charge density. In laymen’s terms – lithium based batteries are easily rechargeable and last a long time.

So where does lithium come from?

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

The Lithium Triangle

Three Latin American countries produce almost half of all our lithium. The vast salt flats of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina hold the bulk of the world’s supply. The salt flats in countries form a region that is referred to as the Lithium Triangle.

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

According to data from the United States Geological Survey – Mineral Resources Program, The Lithium Triangle produced 14.1 million tones of lithium compounds in 2017. Approximately 41 percent of all the worlds lithium supply in that same year. (34 million tones produced worldwide in total, minus the US)

The Mineral Resources Program is a US government agency that conducts data collection and research on mineral resources that are important to a Nation’s economic and national security. The Mineral Resources Program is part of the United States Geological Survey Energy & Minerals Mission Area.

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

Growing Lithium Demand

The automobile industry in the last few years has become one of the leading consumers of batteries. Cars are now in close competition with consumer electronics for largest users of lithium batteries. Several reports and industry forecasts expect battery demand to increase exponentially. Largely driven by the growing adoption of electric cars. Demand for lithium is expected to triple by 2025 according to reports by Reuters & Bloomberg. Companies and governments are eagerly looking to profit from the commodity. But there are also environmental concerns and worries about the effect increased lithium extraction could have.

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

We Power Our Future With The Breastmilk Of Volcanoes

The multidisciplinary design studio, Unknown Fields, ventured out to The Lithium Triangle. There the team was able to see the vast acid lakes where lithium is extracted.

During this expedition to the salt flats of Chile and Bolivia – the studio was able to capture stunning visuals of the landscapes responsible for our lithium supplies. These mostly industrial lakes are portrayed as a technicolor landscape through the aerial lens of the team’s camera drones.

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

“This grey rush territory is also a landscape of Incan mythology and sacred mountains, where a traditional indigenous narrative describes this shimmering white expanse being created from the mixing of the tears and breast milk of a weeping mother volcano who has just lost her lover.

While the world does its best to ignore that technology is forged from the earth, with marketing campaigns of ephemeral clouds and the relentless push for the smallest and lightest, this object embodies the story of the landscape in which it was made.

Still from ‘The Breastmilk of the Volcano’, Unknown Fields, 2018

A mass of alternating aluminum and graphite – anode and cathode — submerged in a lithium brine electrolyte collected from Bolivia’s electric Salar de Uyuni creates a slow reaction, the drip charge of a crying mountain.

The creation myth of this landscape is told again and again as the electrons flow. We power our technologies from the tears and breastmilk of sacred volcanoes.”

-Unknown Fields

The studio sought out to highlight some of the unintended consequences of technological innovation and our new electric future. With consideration to the strain growing lithium demand will have on its native landscapes.

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