Chile's SQM posts jump in lithium sales, fast-tracks Atacama expansion

SANTIAGO, May 20 (Reuters) - Chilean miner SQM, the world’s No. 2 producer of lithium, said on Wednesday its sales volumes of the battery metal had jumped 180% in the first quarter on rising demand from the electric vehicle industry, prompting it to fast-track existing expansion plans in Chile’s lithium-rich Atacama salt flat.

Soaring demand for white metal lithium is stoking prices and fueling long-delayed expansions by miners from Chile to Australia as they race to meet the needs of global automakers as they aggressively ramp up production plans.

“We saw strong demand growth for electric vehicles during the first quarter, more than double compared to last year, making us believe that annual demand for lithium chemicals could grow more than 30%,” said CEO Ricardo Ramos in the company’s first-quarter earnings statement.

SQM said demand growth would boost its sales of lithium carbonate equivalent to more than 85,000 tonnes in 2021, better than predicted and a 30% increase over the previous year. The company said it also expected prices to continue to climb through the end of the year.

Growing industry optimism from higher lithium prices is a change from last year when funding for mines and processing plants dried up during the pandemic, prompting many to shelve expansion plans.

The company said renewed optimism had prompted it to push forward by one year its own plans for expansion in Chile.

“Our new target is to reach 180,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate and 30,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide in Chile by the end of 2022,” the company said in a statement.

The company reported first-quarter earnings of $68 million, or 0.26 cents per share, compared with $45 million, or $0.17 per share, in the year-ago period. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; editing by David Evans)