Saudi Arabia’s flagship mining company Ma’aden is working to extract lithium from seawater, its chief executive Robert Wilt said on Wednesday, as competition for the rare metal rages between the U.S. and China.
Wilt said Ma’aden, the Gulf’s largest miner, is trying to stay above the fray and was “doing what’s best for the kingdom”.
“We are working on an initiative to extract lithium from seawater as well as some other things; I would say nothing is of scale, we are still at pilot phase currently,” Wilt told Reuters in an interview.
Lithium is a key mineral used for electric car batteries, laptops and smartphones.
Ma’aden is 67% owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, and recently launched Manara Minerals, a joint venture with the PIF, to invest in mining assets abroad.
“We have de-risked our portfolio in terms of broadening exploration and working external to the kingdom to make sure we are resilient no matter what happens geopolitically,” Wilt said.
He noted the kingdom is developing an automotive industry which will require electric vehicle battery materials and “we will probably not find that in time as the plants are being built, so we have to go outside and source it.”
However the priority for Saudi Arabia has also been securing steel and iron ore from abroad as the kingdom rushes to construct ambitious mega projects. “Look outside the window, see the cranes, the giga projects that are going on here, there is immense appetite for steel,” Wilt said.
The company was also planning to almost double production from its phosphate and gold mines, he said.
“We are in the final stages of commissioning Mansourah-Massarah, the largest gold mine in the kingdom, which will almost double our production of gold,” he said.
Mansourah-Massarah is expected to contribute 250,000 ounces of gold per year.
Ma’aden has struggled as global prices for metals dipped, with its second quarter profit tumbling by more than 90%.
Wilt said prices have been recovering.
“Prices seem to be steadying out in a place that’s higher than they were going into at the beginning of the cycle.”
In its last earning’s call, Ma’aden said it was considering raising debt on international markets.
“We recently required an investment rate credit rating … So all of this is in preparation for significant growth over the next 15 years or so,” Wilt said.