November 28, 2019 / 1:09 PM / 16 days ago

Chile's SQM to decide on future of lithium holdings in Maricunga by year's end - mining minister

SALAR DE AGUILAR, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Chile has asked top lithium miner SQM to decide by year’s end what it will do with its holdings in the Maricunga salt flat, the country’s second richest in lithium, the country’s mining minister told Reuters.

Though Maricunga’s 90 square miles (145 sq. km) make it less than 5 percent the size of the lithium-rich Salar de Atacama in northern Chile, high-grade deposits of the ultralight battery metal nonetheless make it attractive to miners. But fractured ownership has slowed development.

“We have asked SQM, which has holdings on the flat, to participate in a work group to determine what it will do with them,” Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica told Reuters.

Prokurica said he had asked SQM to respond by “year’s end.”

SQM did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Besides SQM, Chile’s state-run copper miner Codelco and foreign-backed miner Salar Blanco, 50% owned by Australia’s Lithium Power International, also have holdings on the salt flat.

Codelco has said it will decide by early 2020 whether to pursue an option for a joint lithium project the privately-owned miner, which is pushing forward with environmental permitting.

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 key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles.

But the nation’s output has barely budged in recent years, as bureaucractic and environmental hurtles have stymied development. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero, writing by Dave Sherwood Editing by Alistair Bell)

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