SANTIAGO, July 18 (Reuters) - Chilean miner SQM on Wednesday began the process of seeking government approval for a $450 million expansion of its lithium carbonate plant, which could more than double its production as demand rises for the key element in the manufacturing of batteries.
SQM said in an environmental impact statement that the upgrade planned for its Salar del Carmen facility would increase production of lithium carbonate to 180,000 tons a year from 70,000 tonnes through two phases with the goal of being operational in 2020.
Global manufacturers of batteries and electric cars are looking to secure their supplies against the increasing value of lithium.
"In the first operational phase, production will be increased to 110,000 tonnes a year by increasing the current operating capacity of our equipment and processes," said the miner.
The company said the second phase of expansion - called Lithium Carbonate Plant 3 - would see new equipment installed and existing equipment modified to increase production.
In January, the company entered into an agreement with the Chilean government that ended a long dispute over a key lithium deposit and enabled it to increase its production quota in the vital Salar de Atacama.
SQM said one the most important aspects of its expansion project would be to optimize its use of scarce water resources in the area of northern Chile where it operates by using the same amount it does now even with increased production levels.
The company plans to begin the lithium plant project at the end of this year. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Peter Cooney)