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Hydrogeological constraints for the genesis of the extreme lithium enrichment in the Salar de Atacama (NE Chile): A thermohaline flow modelling approach

AuthorsMarazuela, Miguel Ángel; Ayora, Carlos ; Vázquez-Suñé, Enric ; Olivella, Sebastià; García Gil, A.
KeywordsSaline interface
Density-driven flow
Groundwater flow
Issue Date15-Oct-2020
CitationScience of the Total Environment 739: 139959 (2020)
AbstractThe Salar de Atacama (SdA) is the largest Li reserve globally. The origin of Li, together with the rest of solutes, has been object of debate. Thus, rock weathering at low temperature, hydrothermal leaching or magmatic origin together with subsequent evaporation has been hypothesized. However, the extreme Li enrichment (>4000 mg/L) and the location of the Li-Mg-rich brines around the Salar Fault System (SFS) that crosses the nucleus of the SdA in half remain unexplained. The objective of this work is to define the thermohaline groundwater flow in the SdA basin to account for the genesis of its extreme Li enrichment. Thermohaline flow modelling has demonstrated the critical effect of the minimum hydraulic head (MHH) of the regional water table on the groundwater flow of salt flats. The MHH divides the basin into two isolated hydrodynamic systems and constitutes the endpoint towards which the most evaporated brines converge. The spatial mismatch between the locations of the Li-Mg-rich brines in the central-western zone of the nucleus (in the SFS) and the MHH in the easternmost zone of the nucleus discards recent evaporative concentration of the recharge water as the main mechanism of Li enrichment. Moreover, the persistence of a saline interface surrounding the nucleus at depth, regardless of the temperature gradient, also precludes lateral recharge (predominantly from the east) to ascend along the SFS. On the other hand, the computed thermohaline flow is compatible with the remobilization of buried layers of Li-Mg-enriched salts and/or clays by dilute recharge waters coming from the west or southwest of the basin. Here, the role of faults and density-driven flow is key to allow efficient downward and upward flow rates that favour the remobilization of Li and Mg.
Publisher version (URL)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139959
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