Chile bets on becoming world lithium leader as demand rises

Santiago, Chile – It’s white — not yellow — but like gold, Elon Musk tweeted: “Lithium ore is very common throughout Earth. What matters is refining capacity.” He is not wrong. Not all lithium is made equal. Know-how and technology are important, but so too is the source of the lithium.

Pools of brine are slowly turned into lithium at the Albemarle lithium mine in Chile's Atacama desert
Pools of brine are slowly turned into lithium at the Albemarle lithium mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, April 17, 2023 [Rodrigo Abd/AP]

“You can take lithium out of the ocean, but it is very, very expensive,” said Benavente. “We have a great advantage over Italy, the United States and Australia that produce lithium from rocks, because we can literally just grab it. Of course it’s more complex, but in relative terms, it is much easier and far more cost-efficient — and therefore profitable — to extract lithium from salt flats in the desert. You just spread it out and let it dry. Therefore, the profit margin here is much higher than in Australia, which right now produces more but at a far higher cost.”

The government says it will present the final bill to create the national lithium company in the second half of this year. While it is created, CODELCO, the state-owned copper company which is now the world’s largest copper producer, will be in charge of getting the business started. Hundreds of foreign companies interested in investing in Chilean lithium are already showing interest, government sources have told Al Jazeera.

Apart from the Atacama Salt Flats, President Boric says that Chile will open opportunities to private companies to invest in at least a dozen smaller but still significant lagoons and salt flats in other areas.

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