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SQM pushes back capacity expansion at Salar de Atacama lithium operations

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SQM pushes back capacity expansion at Salar de Atacama lithium operations

Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SA, or SQM, pushed back a planned expansion of its Salar de Atacama lithium operations in Chile until late-2021 from 2020, Reuters reported May 23, citing CEO Ricardo Ramos.

The postponement of two-phase, US$450 million expansion was made amid weak lithium prices. Ramos, however, said in an earnings call that the quickly-evolving requirements of the battery industry were the reason behind the delay.

"The delay is not related to the market or demand," Ramos said, adding that both permits and technology were set for the capacity expansion. "We are going as fast as we can."

In March, SQM secured environmental approval for the planned expansion at its Salar de Atacama operations.

In its earnings release, SQM said it is working on a US$280 million expansion to its lithium carbonate production to 120,000 tonnes per year, which it expects to complete in the second half of 2021. It is also working on increasing lithium hydroxide capacity to 29,500 tonnes in 2021 at a cost of US$100 million.

Weak average lithium prices partly contributed to the Chilean producer's first-quarter earnings drop to US$80.5 million, from US$113.8 million a year ago.