Chile’s state-owned Codelco, the world’s no.1 copper producer, will go ahead with plans to explore for lithium at the Maricunga salt flat, the country’s second largest in terms of reserves, after receiving the approval from local environmental regulators.
The exploration campaign, approved by the 10 members of the Environmental Assessment Commission of Atacama, where Maricunga is located, would begin in April 2021, Codelco said.
The copper giant plans to spend between six and 10 months on the field to determine concentrations of the battery metal on the 145 sq. km (90 square miles) area, estimate the size of the resource and identify necessary next steps, it said.
“Depending on the results, specifically on the concentrations of lithium dissolved in the brines of said mining properties, Codelco will define whether it is environmentally and economically viable to move on to the next stages of the project,” the company said in a statement.
The Santiago-based miner for years tried and failed to get into the lithium business, as plans to overhaul its aging copper mines took priority.
Chile holds some of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles and high tech devices. But the nation’s output has barely budged in recent years, as constitutional restrictions reserving lithium production for the state have pushed investors to develop mines in Argentina and Australia instead.
Under a new lithium policy published in 2016, the Chilean government plans to boost lithium production by directing its state-owned mining companies to develop their claims over salt-flats in the arid north of the country.
In 2018, Codelco obtained special permits over the whole of the Salar de Maricunga and last year it entered talks with privately-owned Minera Salar Blanco to form a joint venture to mine claims held by both the companies in the area.
The Maricunga salt flat is far smaller than the vast Salar de Atacama (less than 5% Atacama’s size), where top lithium producers dominate.
SQM, the world’s second-largest lithium miner, also holds stakes in Maricunga.