Codelco requests exploration permits for Chile’s second largest salt flat

Maricunga is less than 5% of the size of the vast lithium-rich Salar de Atacama in northern Chile. (Image courtesy of Sergejf |Flickr.)

Chile’s state-owned Codelco, the world’s no.1 copper producer, filed with regulators on Friday a request for environmental permits to start exploring for lithium at the Maricunga salt flat, the country’s second largest in terms of reserves.

The sought licences would allow Codelco to determine concentrations of the battery metal on the 90 square miles (145 sq. km) area, estimate the size of the resource and identify necessary next steps.

Codelco has for years tried and failed to get into the lithium business, as plans to overhaul its aging copper mines have taken priority

The Santiago-based company announced last year a non-binding agreement with foreign-backed Salar Blanco to explore a joint venture in Maricunga.

Salar Blanco, which has its own holdings on the flat and is pushing forward with final environmental approvals, is 50% owned by Australia’s Lithium Power International, with smaller stakes held by Canada’s Bearing Lithium and local capital.

Chile’s SQM, the world’s second largest lithium producer, also holds stakes in Maricunga.

Codelco has for years tried and failed to get into the lithium business, as plans to overhaul its aging copper mines have taken priority.

On Thursday, the miner kicked off commercial production from the $759 million phase one expansion project at El Teniente, the world’s biggest underground copper mine and the sixth largest by reserve size.

world's top reserves of lithium according to USGS

Chile holds some of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles. But the nation’s output has barely budged in recent years, as bureaucratic and environmental hurtles have stymied development.

The Maricunga salt flat is far smaller than the vast Salar de Atacama (less than 5% Atacama’s size), where top lithium producers US-based Albemarle and SQM dominate.

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