Awarding of the Chilean Institute of Clean Technologies: In the final stretch

Although May would be initially the month where it would be announced which consortium would be awarded the project promoted by Corfo, this process has been delayed for a few months, first due to the social outbreak in October, and then due to the pandemic. However, the entity would be on the verge of defining, once and for all, the winning consortium.

At stake are US$ 193 million to be invested over 10 years. This amount is part of the “Salar de Atacama Contract”, an agreement reached by Corfo and SQM during January 2018, where it was defined, among other things, to give added value to lithium.

In that sense, it was that, during April 2019, the call for national and international consortia was launched for the creation of what will be the largest research and development center in the country in this matter: the Chilean Institute of Clean Technologies (ITL), in the Antofagasta Region.

“The lithium industry has enormous potential and it is essential to incorporate high levels of technology,” Corfo Executive Vice President Pablo Terrazas said at the time. “This is a great opportunity to innovate and create products and projects that can be exported all over the world”.

Due to the social outbreak of October 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Corfo’s request for more information from the conglomerates, the call underwent a modification in its deadlines, delaying the process. Thus, in April of this year, the four projects that would compete for the ITL were announced -one of them gave up on the way-, and the date to announce the winner was announced: May 15, 2020. However, so far, this has not happened.

When consulted in this regard, Corfo states that “the ITL will be the largest center of its kind on the continent and will benefit the Antofagasta Region and the country in general, taking advantage through innovation, and thereby generating more opportunities to reactivate our economy. The process has not been without challenges as a result of the current contingency, but we hope to announce the results of the contest as soon as possible”.

What would be missing from the process, say those familiar with it, is that the meeting of the Board of Directors of the institution takes place: “we hope that the conglomerate will be announced soon that the project will be awarded, in mid-October or early November”.

This Board of Directors is made up of the Ministers of Economy, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Social Development, Agriculture and Sciences, in addition to the vice president of the entity, and an external member.

What consortia offer

Although originally there were four competing consortia, one of them, the Vallenar 1 Photovoltaic Plant: Implementation of Vanadium Batteries, withdrew its application. The other three consortiums, led by Corporación Alta Ley, Fundación Chile, and Associated Universities Inc. (AUI), are in the final stretch, waiting for Corfo to announce the winner.  And this should develop knowledge and new technological solutions to the eaves of universities and research institutes, both national and international, as well as the private sector.

In the case of the Alta Ley Corporation, through the Association for the Development of the Institute of Clean Technologies (Asdit), the entity is committed to the green hydrogen industry as the backbone of its proposal. Asdit also has the backing of the Antofagasta Industrial Association (AIA), eight research centers, and 11 Chilean universities.

The project is based on five collaborative platforms: hydrogen, solar, water, lithium, and new materials, with a portfolio of more than 200 projects. In total, contributions of approximately US$ 400 million would be consolidated for the operation of the ITL.

“Our focus has been to generate a new hydrogen export industry”, says Víctor Pérez, CEO of Asdit. “To produce hydrogen, you need water, renewable energy, and store energy, that’s where the world of lithium comes in, and you need a plaintiff, which is green mining”.

“The proposal has a deep regional vocation”, they point out from the conglomerate. “It is from the resources that are generated in Antofagasta that a development proposal is modeled that generates employment, knowledge, and well-being for its inhabitants and from there to Chile and the world”.

On the other hand, Fundación Chile articulates the ITL Chile consortium, where important international entities participate, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the French National Institute for Energy Transition (CEA-Liten), the Energy Institute of the State University of Colorado (CSU), and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“A design was built based on the principles of agility, closeness to the industry and management of agency conflicts that achieved the highest score among all applicants”, explains the Fundación Chile report on the application. This proposal will include projects in areas such as solar energy, hydrogen, electrification, and sustainable lithium extraction, among other things.

The entity has also indicated that they will focus on the latest most important developments in the world, so as not to replicate research that is being developed elsewhere. “You have to get on the integration of industrial and semi-industrial solutions or pilots and make the last mile of these developments in Chile. This generates learning to carry out more sophisticated projects and drive the development of local suppliers so that in the long term they can export “, explained at that time the now-former business and sustainability manager of Fundación Chile, Andrés Pesce.

Finally, the third conglomerate, led by the AUI, has 22 associates, among which are Asexma, Enel Generación Chile, Colbún or Engie Latam, in addition to other entities.

From AUI -which brings together the North American universities Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rochester, and Yale-, they have highlighted this project as an opportunity not only for the Antofagasta Region and Chile but also for the humanity.

“We are not looking for incremental changes in technology. Our objective is to achieve exponential leaps in new technologies, with high added value, that generates regional investments by applying these new technologies, with regional manufacturing inserted within global value chains”, explained representatives of the conglomerate to the media in the Antofagasta region, on a visit in June 2019.

“Our objective is to produce a great impact on regional development, with an important generation of specialized jobs, a more productive and sustainable mining sector, and the development of professionals and technicians in applied science,” they added.

Of these three conglomerates, the one that best meets Corfo’s expectations will be chosen, putting Chile at the forefront of lithium-related technologies, and transforming it into a pole of innovation in the matter.