A Chilean government delegation met in the United States and Canada with 24 investors interested in participating in a lithium bidding process, deputy mining secretary Pablo Wagner said.

"We sold more than 24 bidding terms and conditions in just a few days and that means the process has sparked interest. We hope that interest remains because that will generate value for the country," Wagner told reporters in this capital after meeting with the chairman of Chilean state mining giant Codelco, Gerardo Jofre.

During its four-day visit to New York and Toronto, the Chilean delegation met with more than 300 representatives of investment banks and mining companies who expressed interest in the bidding process launched last week, Wagner said.

The winner of the auction for lithium production quotas and licenses will sign a special contract governing its participation in the exploration and development of lithium deposits, which are concentrated in northern Chile's Atacama desert.

President Sebastian Piñera's conservative administration opted for that type of contract because, although Chile's 1973 Mining Code defines lithium as a "strategic" mineral that cannot be awarded under regular mining concessions, the country's charter states that "special operation contracts" can be signed to exploit those reserves.

Wagner on Thursday presented Jofre the rules of the bidding process. Potential investors have until July 31 to acquire the auction conditions and until Sept. 12 to submit their bids.

Jofre said Codelco is interested in participating but must study whether investing in the metal would be profitable.

"What we're studying is whether it's a good business. If it's a good business, we'll do it," Jofre said, adding that eventual lithium production by Codelco would complement its structural projects in that industry.

For its part, the Federation of Unions of Codelco Supervisors and Professionals recently called on the state-owned mining giant, the world's largest copper producer, to take over the development of lithium reserves to avoid giving foreign companies the lead role.

Through the special operations contracts, the government plans to collect $350 million per project via a 7 percent sales royalty.

Chile's opposition and experts have questioned the government's move to open lithium mining to foreign investment, saying it is looking to privatize a resource that is state property.

Global demand for lithium - a key component in computer batteries, cellphones and hybrid vehicles - has tripled over the past 10 years, while the Cochilco state copper commission says the price of lithium carbonate on world markets has risen from $2,000 per ton in 2001 to around $6,000 per ton at present.

Chile holds the planet's second-largest reserves of the world's lightest metal, trailing only neighboring Bolivia. EFE