SANTIAGO – State-owned mining company Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, announced plans to explore for lithium at two salt flats in northern Chile.
“This is the time to implement concrete, short-term measures that chart a path for governing the salt flats and for making intelligent and sustainable use of Chile’s lithium,” President Michelle Bachelet, who attended a ceremony at Codelco’s headquarters in which the announcement was made, said on Monday.
The mining company said a timetable existed for the auctioning off of exploration rights at the Maricunga and Pedernales salt flats, located in the northern region of Atacama, but it provided no further details of the plan.
The plan to auction lithium exploration rights is among a package of measures devised by the National Lithium Commission and chiefly aimed at establishing a new regulatory framework to define production methods and community relations, among other things.
“One of the first determinations we made was to heed the commission’s call to reaffirm the strategic character of lithium, the property of all Chileans, and maintain its condition as a non-concessionable material,” Bachelet said.
That does not mean the doors have been closed to lithium development by private companies, she said, welcoming them to cooperate in a “fair and reliable” manner.
One possibility under consideration is that Codelco could be a partner in a public-private alliance created to develop the lithium located on its properties if such a project were determined to be economically viable.
Chile is the world’s second-largest lithium producer, while the largest reserves of that light and soft metal – used in making batteries and in the energy industry – are located in salt flats that span parts of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Demand for lithium for use in nuclear fusion reactors, high capacity electric-car batteries and aluminum and lithium alloys is expected to rise in the coming years, the Chilean government says.