Neo Lithium lining up partner for $490m Argentine venture

(Bloomberg) — Neo Lithium Corp. is negotiating a $490 million arrangement to bankroll construction of a mine in Argentina as the Toronto-based penny stock looks to tap a nascent lithium boom in the South American country.

The company is in talks with would-be U.S., European and Asian joint-venture partners for Tres Quebradas in Catamarca province, Chief Executive Officer Waldo Perez said. The project, which straddles salt flats and lakes across 135 square miles near the Chilean border, is billed as having high concentrations of the mineral used in rechargeable batteries and low impurities.

“We’re looking for a partner,” Perez said in an interview in Buenos Aires. “And we hope to close a deal by the end of year.”“We’re looking for a partner.” 

Perez said the money would fund the project in its entirety and that he wouldn’t seek an off-take agreement, the likes of which Argentine rivals such as Minera Exar SA have opted for with Asian buyers. Neo Lithium has a market value of about $90 million after its shares fell more than 50 percent this year.

A test plant for processing the lithium should be ready in the coming months, and the plan is for it to operate remotely in Chile until February, when it would be brought to Catamarca, Perez said. It’s targeting 35,000 metric tons of lithium-carbonate output by 2023, and also hopes to produce lithium hydroxide.

First, Neo Lithium, which operates in Argentina as Liex SA, needs to outsource a feasibility study. It will begin that process in November, and intends to begin construction of the main plant next year.

Spur activity

Perez, formerly with Minera Exar, founded Neo Lithium after a geologist friend, Eduardo Peralta, stopped by a lake in 2015 while scouting for gold, only to find the water was unctuous and salty. Peralta collected the brine in an empty Coca-Cola bottle to test and later confirmed it contained high-grade lithium.

Extracting lithium from salty water is cheaper and easier than hard-rock mining. Producers pump the liquid through giant hoses into turquoise evaporation ponds.Extracting lithium from salty water is cheaper and easier than hard-rock mining. 

A joint venture for Neo Lithium would spur lithium activity in Argentina, which has the world’s third-biggest reserves but has been crimped by a dearth of skilled workers and know-how.

Until three years ago, the only company extracting lithium on a commercial scale from Argentine brine was U.S.-based FMC Corp., which began operations in the Dead Man salt flat in 1997. It’s preparing to spin off a lithium unit in October under the name Livent. Australia’s Orocobre Ltd. became the country’s second producer in 2015.

More recent deals include a $280 million sale by Galaxy Resources Ltd. to South Korea’s Posco.

(By Jonathan Gilbert and Carolina Millan)