By Ernest Scheyder
May 9 (Reuters) - Albemarle Corp said on Thursday it is moving forward on a project it claims will boost its Chilean lithium production by 30 percent without extracting more brine from the environmentally sensitive Salar de Atacama, the world’s driest desert.
The company, the world’s largest producer of the white metal used to make electric vehicle batteries, has teased the industry for more than a year that it has production-enhancing technology. The lack of details, though, has irked some investors and Chilean authorities.
Chief Executive Luke Kissam said on Thursday the company has successfully tested the process in a laboratory and in field tests, has ordered equipment and plans to start construction during the second quarter.
“There’s not any specially made pieces of equipment or things like that. So we feel confident in our ability to execute this project,” Kissam told investors on a conference call.
The project should be commissioned by 2021, Kissam said, without providing its cost.
Lithium output is closely watched by Chile, despite the $100 million in royalties the country collects annually from Albemarle, due to concerns about Atacama water and brine levels.
Chilean regulators last year began delving into just how the new process works, ultimately rejecting Albemarle’s application to produce more lithium for lack of details. Albemarle had said it would re-apply.
It was not immediately clear if the process outlined on Thursday used the same technology mentioned last year, nor was it clear if Albemarle had re-applied with Chilean officials.
Representatives for Albemarle and Chilean nuclear agency CCHEN, which oversees exports of lithium, were not immediately available to comment.
Charlotte, North Carolina-based Albemarle said on Thursday that commissioning of its La Negra III and IV lithium carbonate facilities in Chile would not happen until at least the fourth quarter due to delays in shipping of equipment.
Albemarle said on Thursday it plans to produce 40,000 tonnes of lithium in Chile this year, roughly flat with 2018 levels. Albemarle has authorization to produce in Chile the equivalent of up to 80,000 tonnes annually of lithium through 2043.
Shares of Albemarle, which posted better-than-expected quarterly profit on Wednesday, were down 1.6% at $71.45 in midday trading on Thursday. (Reporting by Ernest Scheyder Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero in Santiago Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Phil Berlowitz)