Australian investors are taking a leading role in developing South America’s lithium triangle, a region of high altitude brine lakes that spans Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.

Lithium, also referred to as ‘white petroleum’, comes from the primary production of brine or hard rock which is largely concentrated in Australia, Chile and Argentina.

Global demand for lithium has grown rapidly over the past decade, with lithium compounds used to manufacture ceramics, glass and electronics, as well as being an essential ingredient in the production of battery materials such as cathode and electrolyte.

It is also used to manufacture long-life lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phones, consumer electronics, power tools, electric bikes and hybrid and electric vehicles.

Austrade Senior Trade Commissioner for Andean Latin America Shannon Powell said Australian expertise in mining was widely known and regarded, but increasingly in demand as a key producer of lithium.

“Australia, Chile and Argentina are the world’s biggest producers of lithium respectively, with nearby Bolivia a potential disruptor in the market,” she said.

“Bolivia has the world’s largest potential reserves of the metal – projected to be around nine million tonnes in excess of reserves in the US, China and Australia.

“While Bolivia has faced challenges to achieving its production goals, the first shipment of 10 tonnes of lithium carbonate valued at US$70,000 was sent to China in August last year.”

A supply shortage increased lithium prices throughout 2016. Goldman Sachs has projected lithium demand could triple by 2025 largely driven by the production of electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S.

Ms Powell said Australian investors had been buoyed by regulatory changes in Argentina and Chile which had resulted in enhanced opportunities.

“Last year, Chile established a Lithium Committee within CORFO – its development agency – to develop, monitor, regulate and manage existing contracts,” she said.

“Among its first endeavours was issuing a call to tender for the exploration of the Maricunga and Pedernales salt flats owned by state-run Codelco.

“In Argentina, President Macri’s administration moved quickly to welcome foreign investors, creating a Ministry of Energy and Mining and eliminating barriers to investment in the sector with a range of tax reforms.”

Galaxy Resources, an ASX-listed lithium-focused resources company, is planning to develop the Sal de Vida lithium and potash brine project in Argentina. Sal de Vida is an area of 385sq km, which presently accounts for 60 per cent of global lithium production.

Australia’s Ocrocobre Limited, which is listed on the ASX and Toronto Stock Exchange, has also invested in Argentina. The company built a large-scale, de novo brine- based lithium mine at its flagship Salar de Olaroz project, the first such mine to be completed in over 20 years.

The Salar de Olaroz project has a measured and indicated resource of 6.4 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent and is capable of sustaining current continuous production for 40-plus years with only 15 per cent of the defined resource extracted.

In Chile, ASX-listed Lithium Power International Limited has entered into a joint venture with Minera Salar Blanco and Li3 Energy to explore and develop the high-grade Maricunga lithium-brine project in the country’s north- east.

Through its Argentinian subsidiary, Lithium Power also holds six granted tenements covering an area of 61.5 square kilometres in the Centenario lithium brine salar, which is located within the Salta province of the Puna Plateau.

‘The white petroleum rush is also providing opportunities for Australian engineering and METS companies in the region,’ Ms Powell said.

“Australian firm GHD is already exploring promising opportunities in Argentina and Chile”.