Chile opens 26 lithium salt flats to private companies

SQM lithium mining operations in Chile’s north. (Image: Google Earth.)

Chile has revealed a long-awaited list of lithium-bearing salt flats that will be open to private investors with the goal of increasing local production of the battery metal by 70% in a decade, but as the mining minister told MINING.COM last year, it has reserved the Atacama and Maricunga salars for state majority control.

The announcement provides insight into President Gabriel Boric’s government strategy to implement a national lithium policy announced a year ago. The model calls for public-private alliances in future projects, with state firms controlling partnerships in the most promising areas, while private firms can take the majority stake in projects located in less strategic zones.

A tender process for 26 salt flats will be kicked off in April and it is expected to conclude in July, the government said. It noted it expects to see three or four new projects under development by 2026. 

Atacama and Maricunga, the two salt flats deemed strategic and as such reserved to state-controlled partnerships, host a combined lithium potential of 10.8 million tonnes, corresponding to 64% of global reserves.

Nine other salt flats could contribute 3.3 million additional tonnes, according to expert José Cabello, head of consulting firm Mineralium.

Officials also announced the state will create a network of protected salt flats, which will not be touched as they are located in National Parks and other environmentally critical protected areas.

Juggling act

Chile is the world’s top copper producer and the second-largest producer of lithium after Australia. Both metals are considered vital commodities for the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

Only two companies currently extract lithium in the country – Chile’s SQM and US-based Albemarle – both in the Atacama salt flat.

The government is trying to juggle securing state control of the industry while attracting more private capital, protecting the environment and moving further down the value chain. Last year, it tasked state-owned copper producer Codelco to negotiate partnerships with each company.

Chilean salt flats
Some of the salt flats identified in northern Chile. Only Atacama and Maricunga have been subject to enough exploration to define lithium reserves. (Image courtesy of Jose Cabello | Andean Geology, 2022.)

The copper giant has already reached a preliminary agreement with SQM, which is set to last until 2060, but talks with Albemarle are ongoing. Earlier this month, Codelco also finalized the $254 million acquisition of Australia’s Lithium Power International, which handed the company the Maricunga lithium project, located in the namesake salt flat.

Global demand for lithium, according to the Chile’s own projections, will quadruple by 2030, reaching 1.8 million tonnes. Available supply by then is expected to sit at 1.5 million tonnes. 

Lithium carbonate exports represented 5.3% of total Chilean shipments in 2023, down from 8.4% the previous year.