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Global Engineering Trek: Chile

Global Engineering Trek Chile: Energy Storage & Critical Minerals

CESR launched its inaugural Global Engineering Trek in Energy Storage & Critical Minerals on September 7th, 2023, sending a group of 9 students to Chile.  As one of the world's largest lithium and copper producers, Chile is at the heart of global efforts to build green energy generation and storage systems.  Follow along below as our students meet with mining and policy experts, tour facilities, and delve into Chilean culture.

This program was supported in part by the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, and in part by CESR, the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy, and by NSF Grant 2330041 SuReMiN. 

September 7th, 2023

Professor Jennifer Dunn, Trek Co-Leader

Exhibit outside the Palacia de La Moneda

We arrived on Thursday morning in a sunny Santiago.  Aside from Rafael Urbana Casanova, a graduate student co-leader joining us on the trip who is Chilean, none of us have ever visited Santiago or Chile before.  We were all eager to learn about the city and experience it, so today was all about the city of Santiago.  We took a funicular up San Cristóbal Hill and enjoyed views over the city.  The views of the Andes mountains were also wonderful.  The next stop on our tour was the Plaza de Armas, the historical city center.  Finally, we walked to the Palacia de La Moneda which houses presidential offices.  We learned about the history of the building and former President Salvador Allende from an outdoor exhibit.  In 1973, missiles damaged the building during the coup.  The time in Santiago helped us get a feel for the lifestyle and culture of the city. In some ways, with skyscrapers, offices, and shops, the city has similarities to Chicago.  Architecture of older, colonial buildings makes some parts of the city feel like Europe.  The surrounding Andes mountains connect the city with nature.  I think many of us hope to be able to explore Santiago more deeply in the future. After our touring, we enjoyed dinner together and are looking forward to our visit to the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile tomorrow.

The group departs from Chicago Touring Santiago by funicular A second group in the funicularSchool spirit in Santiago

September 8th, 2023

Penelope De La Torre '24, Mechanical Engineering

The group in front of PUC's engineering buildingToday, we had a tour of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC), led by students from the engineering school. It was exciting for us to meet students our age and experience what university life is like abroad. We strolled around the San Joaquín campus and learned a lot about the university's history, the various programs it offers, and some fun bits about school traditions. Our tour concluded at the Mining Engineering department, where we attended a lecture by Professor Alvaro Videla on sustainable mining strategies in Chile. It was interesting to learn about the growing emphasis on transparency and the development of sustainable solutions within Chilean mining companies. Following the lecture, we enjoyed lunch and had the opportunity to connect with other students in the mining engineering department.

My favorite part of the day was during the middle of the PUC campus tour. Chile's Independence Day, celebrated on September 18th, kicks off with festivities at the start of the month. While we were The group touring PUC's campusexploring the campus, our tour guides noticed the sound of cueca music being played by some PUC alumni. They kindly demonstrated how the traditional cueca dance is performed and even invited several students from our group to join in and participate in the dance! This was, by far, my favorite part of the day and one of the most memorable moments from the trip. It was a very spontaneous activity that we just happened to come across, but it was really fun to experience it and learn from the PUC students.

Following the tour, we walked around Santiago with the PUC guides and made a stop at the Centro Gabriel Mistral. Here, we learned about the history of the coup that had taken place in Chile. Our visit happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the event, and as a result, the city was covered in memorials for the event. It was interesting to learn about its impact on the community and see how the country has worked to heal from the event. Finally, we walked up Cerro Santa Lucía to enjoy the panoramic view and neighborhood before parting ways from the PUC students for dinner. 

The Trek group and PUC students pose in front of a fountainCueca dancing

September 9th, 2023

Alicia Malek '26, Integrated Science Program/Economics

The group, under the starsAfter a late, but exciting night, we woke up early to catch our plane to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama. On the drive to the hostel, we were in awe as we gazed at the incredible view of the mountains. Once we arrived at the Pablito Hostal, we unpacked and prepared for lunch at a cute bakery called Franchuteria. They offered croissants, baguettes, and sandwiches. My personal favorite was a raspberry jelly filled croissant drizzled with white chocolate. Unlike most bakeries, Franchuteria integrated the natural environment with trees surrounding tables which provided a beautiful dining area.

The next couple of hours were spent exploring the town and recharging from the busy days. Later, we had dinner at Diablillo where some of our daring members tried llama and guanaco, a camel-like species living in South America.

As the sun set, we prepared for our Astronomical Tour led by astronomer Alberto Nardin. Wooden platforms with blankets and pillows were set up, and we gazed at the stars above as Nardin used a laser to point out constellations such as Crux, the Alpha Centauri, and Beta Centauri. We also had the chance to better observe the stars with his telescope. My favorite sight was that of Saturn because of the perfect image as if it were a sticker taped on the lense.  Nardin also took pictures of us under the stars, and after, we enjoyed drinks and snacks by the bonfire.

We returned to the hostel around midnight and prepared for tomorrow’s daylong expedition.



September 10th, 2023

Katy Meston-Ward '24, Industrial Engineering

Flamingos at sunrise

For our second day in San Pedro, we went on a 12 hour excursion into the Atacama desert with an ecotourism guide to learn more about the biodiversity of the desert. We started our day off early, before sunrise, and headed out to the Los Flamencos National Reserve to see flamingos before they left the laguna for day. Of the three flamingo species in Chile, we were able to see two: the Andean flamingo and the Chilean flamingo. Watching the colors of the sunrise reflect in the water and seeing the flamingos so close was such a beautiful sight. After visiting the flamingos, we drove to the Tropic of Capricorn to eat breakfast. By this point the sun had finally risen and we all happy to get warmed up. The breakfast was delicious, made right by our van and drank with maté tea, which is local to the region and helps with altitude sickness. Next, we visited Laguna Chaxa. We were lucky, and there was no wind in the area and the still water of the laguna mirrored the mountains surrounding it. Also, near the laguna we saw a small pack of vicuñas which are similar to llamas. Their numbers have recently grown in the Atacama region after years of being hunted for their soft wool. Our final stop was Red Rocks, a small hike through a rocky region to Salar de Talar, a beautiful light blue water. The day was amazing, and I was shocked by the amount of wildlife throughout the desert. Although it may seem empty, we quickly learned that the Atacama region is rich in life and beauty. I also appreciated that we took the time to understand the ecosystems where lithium mining is taking place.

 Salar de TalarPenelope and Lily at Salar de Talar

September 11th, 2023

SQM siteOur day started with breakfast at the hostel, followed by a van ride south from San Pedro to the SQM lithium production facility. The ride took us through small, sparsely populated towns and desert, most of which we had seen during yesterday’s tour. On the final road leading to the SQM facility, we spotted pipelines which we later learned were freshwater supply lines, and, in the distance, massive piles of what appeared to be stark white sand. We were greeted by Ivonne Toro, a community relations director for SQM, and our tour guide, who gave a presentation on the operations and environmental considerations of the facility while we had refreshments. An extensive Q & A session ensued, including questions about the biological and ecological factors that the company tracks, the water usage and byproduct production of the lithium harvesting process, and the about the company’s relationship with local communities.

                The process of lithium extraction at the Salar de Atacama site includes pumping vast quantities of lithium-containing brine to the surface, to be evaporated in large, shallow pools. The evaporation causes non-valuable salts of high concentration including NaCl (table salt) and various magnesium-containing mineral salts to precipitate from the brine, leaving a higher concentration of lithium behind. The brine is then transferred to the next pool, where more mineral salts are precipitated out, leaving, after a series of 5 pools, a 5-6% lithium solution (from the starting concentration of 0.18%). This solution is then delivered by truck 300km to the chemical processing facility, where it is further refined to produce the ~30% lithium that is shipped to refinement facilities abroad, primarily in China, to be fully processed into lithium products, including lubricants, batteries, and pharmaceutical products. A number of important lessons were emphasized to us during the explanation and ensuing tour of the facility, including:

  • The brine extracted is not potable for human consumption, and the nucleus of the salar (where the facility and aquifer are located) is, as currently understood, devoid of life. This means the significant water use in the form of brine extraction has no measured negative impact on the surrounding ecosystems or communities.
  • The comparatively minimal freshwater usage is necessary, but expected to decrease beyond the already significant decreases with continued R&D.
  • Continued R&D is also expected to significantly increase the percent yield of lithium from the raw brine (a number not shared with us), so the company is hoping to decrease brine extraction by nearly 50% over time, even while continuing to increase production.

The group had several main observations from the tour, including the incredible scale of the facility (31 1km by 300m ponds for the first of 5 stages), the apparent disorder of the facility (including tangled piping and extra materials), and the incredible amount of byproduct, mostly sodium and magnesium salts, which is produced (composing nearly every road, surface, and embankment we touched).

The tour concluded with a lunch and further conversation with our guides, before taking the van back to San Pedro for a night of live music in the square for the 50 year memorial of the 1973 coup, shopping from local artisans, and a late dinner.

The group on a platform at SQMBrine solution at SQM

September 13th, 2023

Ella Shin '25, Computer Science

In El Teniente MineThe second day back from San Pedro we started the day by taking the Metro to the Sustainable Mineral Institute, a research institute through the University of Queensland Brisbane focused on researching and supporting the increasing demand for rare minerals through a lens of sustainability and inclusion of indigenous communities. We met with Doug Aitken, the director of the Chilean branch of SMI and a group of other people who worked there, including a mining engineer, a specialist in biodiversity and forestry, a geology engineer, and several people who worked with indigenous communities affected by mining. People on the team were from Scotland, Belgium, England, and Chile and had a range of different career paths and ages. 

They gave us a presentation on different projects they were working on and explained how agreements worked between 21 different indigenous groups and mining companies. They introduced some of the challenges facing sustainability in mining, including the storage of tailings (byproducts in the mining process), water scarcity, and what to do about abandoned mining sites and mine closures. 

After the meeting with SMI, we met up with Mikkel, a mining engineering student from Pontificad Universidad Catolica de Chile, to head to El Teniente, a copper mine that is the largest underground mine in the world. It is run by CODELCO, a company that is owned by the Chilean government. It was a beautiful drive up a snowy mountain, where you could occasionally see chutes of grey liquid (tailings from the mine) flowing down the side. 

In El Teniente MineWe arrived and put on safety equipment: bright orange jumpsuits, rubber books, helmets, air masks, gloves, and a GPS tracker. Inside the mountain, we started out by seeing the offices where they control some of the equipment remotely from what look like gaming chairs with joysticks and buttons. Our guide joked about an earthquake happening while we were there, but told us that it would actually be safer to be inside the mine than outside of it there was an earthquake. 

 We then went into the actual mines, walking through mud in silent, dark tunnels. We followed our guide through the tunnels, stopping to watch trucks unload piles of rocks. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and unlike some of the office tours and PowerPoint presentations we saw, I felt like I got a real sense of what it is really like to work in the mines, as well as how massive the scale of the operation is. We stopped by the control center on the way back, which was filled with screens that had symbols and words and looked like outdated computer games, and talked about our different reactions to being in the mine.

When we got back to the hotel it had been more than 12 hours since we had left, but we went to meet up with the students we had met from PUC the week before, and we talked about what we had seen on our trip and what Chilean food they suggested we try. Like all the days on the trip, it was packed, exhausting, rewarding, and full of new experiences.


September 14th, 2023

Jun Park '26, Political Science/International Studies

We started off our Thursday morning with a visit to the Human Rights Museum in Santiago, Chile. Chile was under a military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990 under Augusto Pinochet. During that time, many Chilean people were arrested, tortured, or "disappeared." The museum was found under the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and documents the human right violations during the dictatorship. I was impressed by the "arpilleras" which are artworks that express the sorrow and record the oppression. The visit was very emotional and left important lessons for our generation.

 Human Rights Museum     Human Rights Museum

In the afternoon we visited Chile's Ministry of Mining. We were greeted by the chief of staff Jose Inostroza Avaria. We were given 2 presentations on the government policies in mining on copper and lithium. We learned the ministry's attempt to collaborate with the ministry of environment and to diversify the players. We also had a surprise visit from Aurora Williams, the Minister of Mining, who answered many questions. It was a great follow-up of the policy side after our visit to SMI and CODELCO.

 Centro Cultural

Lastly to end our day, we visited the Centro Cultural La Moneda which had the Fundación Artesanías de Chile. It is a fair trade shop which has artisan craft from local makers and it ensures they get a fair value.

September 15th, 2023

Nathan Rockafellow '24, Mechanical Engineering

Local artisansToday, on our final day in Chile, we kicked off the morning by traveling to some local hand-craft shops. There, we walked around the village of shops and were able to appreciate the beauty of the local artisans’ work. It was very cool to see a mix of cultural and local imagery depicted in a variety of mediums, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the country we were visiting.

Following our cultural excursion, we had lunch and then took the metro to Anglo American, a mining company specializing in the extraction of copper, iron, and nickel. There, Rafael Ascanio, a member of the carbon neutrality and biodiversity management team, gave us a presentation detailing Anglo American’s efforts to study, protect, and preserve the natural environment and climate. The presentation covered topics such as their Mitigation Hierarchy, their Sustainable Mining Plan, their detailed studies of local biodiversity, and their efforts to protect and restore natural environments. I was, frankly, surprised by all the company’s efforts to care for the environment. Typically, when I think of mining companies, I have a stereotypical picture of a company that tears apart the earth without any regard for the environment’s well-being. Anglo American seemed to defy this perception. I was curious to know what was driving them to care for the environment as much as they were. Upon being asked, they replied that modern society demands The group visits Anglo-Americanthat companies take a more active role in environmental stewardship. It seems Anglo American has embraced this reality in full and is determined to set the gold standard for environmental conservation in the mining industry.

After our Anglo American visit, we returned to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then headed to the airport to begin our long journey back to Chicago. The past nine days have been impactful and insightful in numerous ways, and I think I speak for all of us lucky enough to experience this journey that we are tremendously thankful for all those who have made this trek possible, from those at Northwestern to our partners in Chile. It’s not every day that you get to travel to a country steeped in a history of mining and learn about ways to improve mining sustainability firsthand. We know how lucky we are, and we don’t take it for granted. Thank you!

September 19th, 2023

Kalaiya Corbin '26, Psychology/Sociology

flamingosI went on the Global Engineering Trek (GET) to Chile as a Psychology and Sociology student, and I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if applying to go to Chile was meant for me because I am not a McCormick student. But, the choice to take this opportunity was one of my best academic decisions. This trip was my first time traveling abroad, and I got to learn so much more about the world.

My favorite part about this trip was going to the Atacama desert. We got to see flamingos and go stargazing; it was breathtakingly beautiful, and I had never seen anything like it. As a social scientist, I appreciated the juxtaposition of seeing nature vs. seeing the lithium mines in the desert. The day after we toured the Atacama Desert we went to visit SQM, a Chilean mining company, and their lithium mines, at which they spoke on sustainability in the industry and outlined the process of lithium production. This visit, to me, displayed a fraction of how vast the human ecological footprint is. It was astonishing landscapeto see just how big one lithium pool was in person; the picture below does not do it justice. We, as humans, extract a myriad of things from the Earth such as minerals, plants, animals and more. All of these resources that we extract contribute to the progression of society, especially minerals like lithium which is considered the “mineral of the future”. However, it is important that we are reminded of Earth’s magnificent creatures and sights that almost cannot be described with words to explain their beauty. We must do more to make sure that these sights don’t disappear. Visiting the lithium mines made me feel as though we as a society, at least in the United States, are far removed from the process of production. This allows us to forget our environmental impact. For example, I did not personally drill for brine containing lithium, but I bought my phone, iPad, and laptop which all contain lithium, and as I bought them, I did not think about the labor and resources that went into producing these items. This needs to change. Visiting the Atacama Desert increased my desire for change within larger corporations and the production of minerals. We need to look for sustainable ways to support people and the Earth, and we need to be knowledgeable about the production of the goods that are so readily available to us.

LakeOne of the reasons I applied for a GET was to learn about what it might mean to study environmental sociology. Going to Chile taught me one of the ways in which society interacts with the environment. I was eager to hear about the mining process, the increasing need for minerals, and how people view the mining process especially since mining makes up a large portion of Chile’s GDP. After Chile, I want to learn more about environmental sociology and incorporate more about sustainability into my learning. Prior to this trip, much of my study of sociology was spent learning about the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality; I hope to study more about how society interacts with biodiversity, climate change and other environmental topics. Additionally, I think it will be interesting to learn more about the intersectionality of the previously named social constructs and the environment. Lastly, I hope to hear more about sustainability practices like the ones that Anglo American, a global mining company, participates in such as buying land to restore biodiversity.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

We asked each Trek participant to share their favorite photo from the trip, and a brief description of what it meant to them. Mouse over each photo to learn more.

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