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Chile’s objective: To become one of the world’s top three cobalt-producing countries.

On December 9th, foreign media reported that Chile, the world’s largest copper-producing country, unveiled an ambitious plan this week to strive to become one of the top three cobalt-producing nations globally while simultaneously increasing its lagging copper production.

In recent years, a decline in ore grade, water restrictions, and disruptions related to the pandemic have led to a decrease in Chile’s output of the orange metal. This has helped offset the impact of slowing demand in the fight against inflation measures.

Despite the latest negative forecasts from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) predicting a copper surplus of 467,000 tons by 2024, the expectations of most analysts are quite the opposite.

Copper is a crucial raw material for manufacturing electric vehicles and green technologies, while cobalt, also known as “blue gold,” is a byproduct of copper and nickel ore processing.

Mario Marcel, Chile’s Minister of Finance, stated in a speech this week that jumping onto the cobalt mining bandwagon is a “logical next step” for the Chilean government.

The economist pointed out that producing this metal would make Chile a major supplier of battery metals, as Chile is also the world’s second-largest lithium supplier.

Although the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has long been the world’s largest cobalt-producing country, accounting for 73% of global production in 2022, climbing to the top is no easy feat.

Indonesia ranks second, with production increasing from around 2,700 tons in 2021 to nearly 9,500 tons last year, more than tripling.

According to data from the Cobalt Institute, by 2030, the dominant position of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is expected to decline to 57% as Indonesia rapidly expands its byproduct cobalt production from the nickel industry.

Pilar Parada, Director of the Center for Systems Biotechnology at Andrés Bello National University (CSB UNAB), suggests that Chile could also pose a threat to the dominant position of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Researchers and companies have already taken steps in this direction. Canada’s Capstone Copper (TSX: CS) is one of the companies committed to establishing a cobalt mining district in northern Chile. The company, formed in 2021 through the merger of Capstone Mining and Mantos Copper, recently integrated its Mantoverde and Santo Domingo operations in the Atacama region.

The Vancouver-based mining company stated that, in addition to producing 200,000 tons of this industrial metal annually, its goal is to produce 4,500 to 6,000 tons of battery-grade cobalt each year.

Chile Cobalt Corporation, based in the United States, is also exploring the La Cobaltera cobalt project in the San Juan region of the Atacama. The aim is to enter the pre-feasibility stage by the second or third quarter of 2024.

The country is also considering cobalt recovery from tailings. “As long as metals are extracted from tailings, Chile could potentially replace Indonesia as the world’s second-largest producer,” Parada said in an interview with Latercera in October.

According to a study commissioned by Chile’s National Economic Development Office (Corfo) and the National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin), Chile has the potential to produce 15,000 tons of cobalt annually from its tailings in the medium term.

Experts say that with the right technology, Chile can extract this mineral in a cleaner way and at lower production costs.

One of the methods currently being researched is using biotechnology for tailings reprocessing to recover cobalt.

According to a 2022 survey by Sernageomin, this production method can also reduce the environmental risks posed by mining tailings, of which 86% are currently abandoned or idle.

This also means that Chile would gain additional funds. Considering the potential output of the current projects and the production from tailings and mines, the country’s annual income is estimated to be around $700 million at today’s prices, calculated at $33,003 per ton in November.

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