AbstractsEarth & Environmental Science

Hydraulic Investigations of the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

by Robert Sieland

Institution: Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg
Department: Geowissenschaften, Geotechnik und Bergbau
Degree: PhD
Year: 2014
Record ID: 1107860
Full text PDF: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:105-qucosa-159161


With a surface area of about 10,000 km², the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It is located at an altitude of 3,653 m on the Altiplano, a high plateau in the south of the Bolivian Andes. The Salar de Uyuni consists of an alternating sequence of highly porous salt layers (mainly composed of halite) and lacustrine clay sediments. The pore volume of the uppermost salt layer which has a thickness of up to 11 m is filled by brine. The brine contains high amounts of Mg, K, Li and B. The element lithium is an especially important raw material for the production of batteries. Thus, it plays an important role for the development of the electric mobility. With this background, extensive hydrogeological exploration activities were carried out at the Salar de Uyuni in the context of this dissertation. The hydraulic properties of the uppermost salt crust and the physical properties (density and viscosity) of the brine must be characterized. In order to do this, several core drillings were made, observation wells were installed, brine samples were taken and pumping tests were conducted between 2009 and 2012. The stratigraphic documentation of the obtained sediment cores provided insights about the deposit structure and the upper salt layer thickness. The determination of the salt core porosity was carried out by three different methods: (a) by using X-ray computed tomography, (b) gravimetrically by saturation with 2-octanol and (c) by completion of the core volume with plasticine and calculation of the porosity under consideration of the particle density of the salt. The laboratory investigations showed a depth-dependent porosity distribution in the upper salt layer. The uppermost 2 m were characterized by very high porosity values between 30 and 39%. However at greater depth, the total porosity decreases on average to 13.5%. Geochemical analyses of brine samples confirmed the general spatial distribution of the lithium concentrations as already published by previous studies. On the basis of the lithium distribution in the brine, the thickness of the upper salt layer and the depth-dependent porosity distribution, the total lithium deposit in the Salar de Uyuni was calculated to be about 7 million tons. The evaluation of the pumping tests under consideration of the density and viscosity of the pumped brine showed that the salt has a very high permeability in the horizontal direction. In contrast, flow-through experiments on drill cores indicated a clear vertical anisotropy of the permeability. This is caused by the inhomogeneous sediment stratification for instance by interbedded fine gypsum or clay lamina. Thus, horizontal brine movements are possible, but a deep vertical flow component can hardly be expected. This assumption is confirmed by radiocarbon dating the brine samples from different salt depths. The influence of annual floods during the rainy season could be observed by long-term brine level measurements. Throughout the time-series analysis, distinct periodic brine fluctuations of a few centimeters…