August 30, 2019 / 7:05 PM / 18 days ago

Chile's Codelco to decide by early 2020 on Maricunga lithium project

SANTIAGO, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Chile’s state-owned Codelco , the world’s top copper miner, will decide by early 2020 whether to pursue a joint lithium project with foreign-backed miner Salar Blanco, a company executive told Reuters on Friday.

Codelco announced earlier this month a non-binding agreement with Salar Blanco to explore a joint venture in the Maricunga salt flat, the country’s second largest in terms of reserves. Salar Blanco is 50% owned by Australia’s Lithium Power International, with smaller stakes held by Canada’s Bearing Lithium and local capital.

“We have given ourselves a deadline to review what they’re doing in Maricunga, and from there, we’ll make a decision,” said Codelco vice-president for Administration and Finance Alejandro Rivera.

“We’re looking at everything and hope to make a decision by 2020,” Rivera added.

Codelco and Salar Blanco both own portions of the salt flat, making more attractive the possibility of a joint venture.

Codelco has for years talked of getting into the lithium business, but has repeatedly delayed plans to develop its reserves to concentrate on copper, its primary business.

Chile possesses the world’s largest reserves of lithium, a lightweight metal crucial to manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles. But the nation’s output has barely budged in recent years.

Chile’s two lone producers, SQM and Albemarle Corp , have struggled to boost production to capitalize on strong global demand, which is widely expected to triple by 2025.

Maricunga’s 90 square miles (145 sq. km) make it less than 5 percent the size of the sprawling Salar de Atacama in northern Chile, home to SQM and Albemarle, but Salar Blanco has described it as one of the “highest-grade lithium brine salars globally.” (Reporting by Fabian Cambero, writing by Dave Sherwood Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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