Russia’s Rosatom tells Chile it can help boost lithium output

SQM lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in northern Chile. (Image courtesy of SQM)

Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom has offered Chile’s government technology it says can boost output of lithium, a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries, according to lobbyist transparency filings reviewed by Reuters.

In separate meetings in late November, lobbyists for the Uranium One Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosatom, told officials at two Chilean agencies they could sustainably boost extraction rates of the ultralight battery metal from brine, improve its quality and net more money in royalties for Chilean coffers.

“If the Russian technology meets with your requirements and expectations … Uranium One Group would be willing to introduce it … for projects operated by SQM, Albemarle … and other concessionaires, with the goal of increasing their production quotas,” the lobbyists told Chilean officials in the Nov. 22 filings.

SQM and Albemarle, which operate in Chile’s lithium-rich Atacama salt flat, are the world’s top producers of lithium. Both have recently won approvals to boost their quotas of lithium production without using more brine, or saltwater, in the process.

Russia’s interest in the South American nation’s lithium industry comes as electric automakers worldwide seek resources for their batteries.

Representatives from Rosatom pitched their plan to officials with Chile development agency Corfo and the Andean nation’s Ministry of Mining.

Russia’s interest in the South American nation’s lithium industry comes as electric automakers worldwide seek resources for their batteries. Chile is the world’s top copper producer and the world’s No. 2 producer of lithium – both metals critical for the industry.

Automakers, governments, miners and other have increasingly lobbied officials here for access to Chile’s coveted resources.

Rosatom said its technology would utilize residual brines left over after processing, and it would do away with the large, water-intensive solar evaporation pools that Chile’s top miners use to produce lithium, the lobbyist records show.

The company also offered several other options to Chilean officials, including building a plant to convert lithium chloride to a battery-grade lithium hydroxide that it said is not produced in Chile but is increasingly coveted by automakers.

A more efficient, water-saving technology could help Chile stem an impending environmental crisis.

Uncertainty over just how much water remains beneath the surface of Chile’s lithium-rich salt flats has increasingly sparked conflict between lithium and copper miners, and between industry and indigenous communities.

Any proposal from Rosatom, one of the world’s largest producers of nuclear reactors, would likely face close scrutiny from Chilean regulators. Chile considers lithium a “strategic mineral,” limiting its production and restricting use in nuclear applications.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Richard Chang)