Chile eyes state-backed lithium push in far-flung salt flats

Brine pools and processing areas of SQM’s lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, the world’s second biggest. (Image courtesy of SQM)

Chile’s Atacama salt flat may get all the attention when it comes to lithium, but the South American nation is looking to develop two lesser-known deposits of the mineral needed to power a global push into electric cars.

Chile’s mining minister, Baldo Prokurica, told Reuters on a trip to the Atacama region the government had asked state-owned copper giant Codelco and smaller state miner National Mining Company, Enami, to forge ahead with lithium projects in the region.

Several European countries and Chinese firms have shown interest in a getting into the lithium business in Chile

“It seems to me, to say the least, a sin that companies with lithium holdings like this are not even working them,” Prokurica said on a tour of the Aguilar and Infieles salt flats. “What has been missing here is the will to move forward.”

Chile has the world’s largest reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles. But it has struggled to ramp up production amid red tape, environmental concerns and falling global prices.

Lithium giants Albemarle and SQM have also focused more on the vast Salar de Atacama, a 3,000 square kilometer (1,158 square mile) area with the largest lithium reserves in the country.

“Atacama is Chile’s largest (salt flat) and has the largest reserves of lithium, so it’s hard to aspire to something of that level,” said Robert Mayne-Nicholls, head of Enami. “But we can aspire to something interesting.”

Chile’s government in 2018 estimated the remote Aguilar, reached by a winding track through one of the world’s driest deserts, has estimated lithium reserves of 70,000 tons. That is just 1% of the 6.3 million tons of lithium that lie beneath the Atacama salt flat.

“The first thing we have to do, and most importantly, is to confirm the existence of lithium in this salt and ensure the quantities are marketable,” Mayne-Nicholls added during a tour of the site.

He said that if his company moved to exploit the site, it would look to tie up with Canada-listed Wealth Minerals Ltd, which has holdings in the region. Mayne-Nicholls said he hoped the project could be operational by 2025.

Several European countries and Chinese firms have shown interest in a getting into the lithium business in Chile, though there has been little concrete advancement in government-led deals aimed at trading lithium-for-technology.

“We are looking for allies to get into the value chain. We’ve had some setbacks but I think we will have good news soon,” Prokurica said.

(By Fabian Cambero, Adam Jourdan and Dave Sherwood; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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