Chile copper giant Codelco to start lithium exploration in March

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The logo of Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, is seen at their headquarter in downtown Santiago, Chile, January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

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SANTIAGO, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Chilean state-owned mining firm Codelco said on Wednesday it will start lithium exploration in the Salar de Maricunga next month, which could present a high-grade reserve of the ultra-light metal that is key for making electric car batteries.

Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, received an environmental permit to develop the salt flat in November 2020, a move which would help it break into the growing lithium sector after repeated delays as it kept its focus on copper.

Codelco said drilling will begin at the end of March and last about 10 months. Maricunga has some high-grade lithium deposits, though it is less than 5% of the size of Chile's vast Salar de Atacama, one of the world's main lithium regions.

"Depending on the results of the campaign, specifically the concentrations of lithium dissolved in the brines of mining properties, the company will define whether it is environmentally and economically viable to continue with the development," Codelco said in a statement.

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Reporting by Fabián Andrés Cambero; Writing by Carolina Pulice; Editing by Leslie Adler

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