Japanese firms to enter the lithium industry in Chile

Japanese companies such as Toyota, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo, as well as Korea's  Samsung, are evaluating the recently opened option to tap into the lithium industry in Chile, local newspaper Diario Financiero published on Thursday.

On Wednesday, mining minister Paul Wagner announced the launch of a Special Operations Contract program, which aims to attract new actors into the lithium industry in the world's top copper producer, which has 25% of world reserves of this mineral.

Under the new regulation, foreign companies will be able to participate in auctions for the right to explore and produce lithium, as Chile seeks to boost its output of the material used in computers, batteries and hybrid vehicles.

The exploitation of lithium in the South American country has been constrained by a constitutional ban on concessions, reports Diario Financiero. Companies are allowed to rent lithium-producing properties, but the mineral never belongs to the firm. Special contracts for lithium production, however, are legally permitted.

"The right to exploit around 100,000 tonnes of lithium for 20 years will be auctioned," mining sub-secretary Pablo Wagner was quoted as saying on La Tercera's web site. "We know that if we delay a lot in developing this project we'll lose competitiveness and we could halve our market share."

Wagner said that Chile could reap $350 million per project, with the first deal likely to be granted by the end of 2012.

Soquimich (SQM) and Sociedad Chilena del Litio (SCL) are the only firms currently producing lithium in Chile.