SANTIAGO - Chilean State miner Codelco, the world's top copper producer, plans to start lithium exploration in the country's northern Maricunga salt flats in the first quarter of the year, part of a foray to develop the metal key for electric vehicle batteries.
Codelco, in a statement sent to Reuters on Monday, said the process would involve looking at groundwater conditions and concentration of lithium in the saltwater brine, which would determine how the project moved forward.
"We expect to be able to start exploration activities in the Salar de Maricunga within the first quarter of 2022, which will last 10 months, though it may be delayed depending on the weather conditions next winter," Codelco said.
The lithium push, Codelco's first, could stir up the sector longer-term in the Andean country that has the world's largest reserves of the ultra-light metal. The price of lithium has been rocketing on soaring demand for electric cars.
Maricunga's 90 square miles (145 square km) make it less than 5% of the size of Chile's vast lithium-rich Salar de Atacama, though high-grade deposits of the metal in some parts of the flat make it attractive to prospective miners.
"This will be the first exploration campaign," Codelco added. "The execution of more studies and a possible future exploitation project will then be decided."
Codelco said that various permits had been processed last year to begin the exploration. "To date, a couple of them are pending, which should be approved in coming months," it added.
Chile is currently holding an auction process to award operating contracts for exploration and production of 400,000 tonnes of lithium, the result of which should be known this week despite push-back from some lawmakers.
President-elect Gabriel Boric, who takes office in March, has said he wants to create a state lithium company to develop the country's reserves of the metal.
Chilean company SQM, the world's second largest lithium producer, and giant miner Albemarle currently lead lithium development in Chile. They are among the five companies that are in the running in the new auction.