Argosy seeks project financing for Argentina lithium site through pilot sales -exec

HONG KONG, May 15 (Reuters) – Australian miner Argosy Minerals plans to use the production from the pilot plant at its lithium carbonate mine in Argentina to entice financing for its commercial operations at the site, a company executive said on Tuesday.

Argosy's Rincon project in northern Argentina will start producing 500 tonnes per year of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) next month, Managing Director Jerko Zuvela told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of a LME Asia Week seminar in Hong Kong.

The company has not signed any off-take agreements for the lithium carbonate, he said. Instead, Argosy hopes to entice buyers keen to procure supply of the metal into long-term contracts tied to financing for the project's second phase with capacity of 1,500 tonnes per year of LCE and a third phase.

Demand for lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, is expected to soar in the coming years as the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) picks up.

"Unfortunately, the big banks haven't financed any lithium projects, be it hard rock or brine at the moment, so our off-take is our leverage to secure financing, the capex for our commercial-stage operations," said Zuvela.

Rincon's initial cargoes will be shipped to North Asia from the Chilean port of Antofagasta, he said, noting that off-take agreements were still being negotiated.

"If we give away off-take too early without securing the finance associated with it, we might get stuck, so we're just using that as a bit of leverage at the moment to discuss with those end-users or strategic partners what we require and what they may be interested in," Zuvela said.

Such end-users include battery makers and even automakers, he added. Asked if such firms could take equity in the Rincon project, Zuvela said Argosy had "had those discussions with the Chinese and the Koreans and the Japanese."

He did not specify the amount being sought but wants to secure financing for the commercial expansion by the end of 2018 before deciding on a production ramp-up plan.

Project finance terms from South Korea and Japan are "more reasonable" than from China, but Chinese firms, more aggressive in their approach, are quick to offer prepayment, he added.

Trading houses have so far not shown much interest, Zuvela said.

Argosy currently holds 77.5 percent in Rincon and is partnered with Pablo Alurralde, a former executive with U.S. lithium firm FMC Corp at their Argentina operations.

(Reporting by Tom Daly and Melanie Burton; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)