Chile has earmarked $7 million to invest over three years in up to ten research projects linked to lithium, including environmental and social aspects of mining the battery metal.
“The more we know about the salt flats, the communities that surround them, and the technologies for their extraction and use, the faster and easier we can move towards sustainable lithium production,” science minister Aisén Etcheverry said.
Applications for the so-called “Lithium and Salt Flat Research Rings” program have opened, and the funding will be awarded in mid-2024. Examples of potential research topics are new methods of brine extractions, reusing materials in the lithium value chain, the biodiversity of the salt flats, and the impact of lithium exploitation on the salt flats, the government said,
Chile announced in April a new national lithium strategy, which calls for public-private partnerships for future lithium projects.
Under the new business model, the state will take a controlling stake in operations considered strategically significant, while private firms will be able to retain control of projects in non-strategic areas.
The nation’s left-leaning government has vowed to be flexible when defining those categories, as it acknowledges that some salt flats are too small for the state to have a major role.
Chile is the world’s top copper producer and the second-largest producer of lithium. Both metals are considered vital commodities for the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.
Total reserves and resources of lithium in Chile are estimated at 14.3 million tonnes, with the Salar de Atacama being the largest lithium-producing salt flat in the county, followed by Maricunga.
Before the new lithium strategy, only SQM (NYSE: SQM) and Albemarle (NYSE: ALB) were licensed to produce lithium in Chile, and limited to only the Atacama salt flat.
The fact that most reserves are concentrated in the dry Atacama area has prompted concerns from indigenous communities and environmental organizations about the possible effects of lithium extraction on water resources and local biodiversity.
“We have little knowledge and, therefore, a great space to contribute to our understanding of these ecosystems that are so fragile and so valuable,” environment minister Maisa Rojas said.
President Gabriel Boric’s administration wants to expand production beyond Atacama, as there are other 18 salt flats that could potentially be open to lithium mining. His government is also looking to encourage downstream investments.
Global demand for lithium, according to the Chile’s own projections, will quadruple by 2030, reaching 1.8 million tonnes. Available supply by then is expected to sit at 1.5 million tonnes.
Chile exported $6.9 million of lithium carbonate las year, representing a 777% increase when compared to 2021, data from the country’s Central Bank shows.