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French mining group Eramet has opened an office in Chile, it said on Monday, as it looks to develop lithium production in South America to supply battery makers.

The office, whose role is to “support future technical and commercial operations“, will be mainly focused on business development and exploration, it said.

Eramet is due to start lithium production next year in Argentina in partnership with Chinese steel group Tsingshan, and has said it is interested in studying other potential sites in a lithium-rich zone of South America that also includes Chile.

South America’s lithium deposits are drawing intense interest as makers of electric vehicle batteries look to secure supply chains. The European Union sees raw materials as a key issue in talks over a trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries.

Eramet, which is 27% held by the French state, is the world’s leading producer of manganese, and a major nickel supplier.

At home, it is among companies exploring geothermal extraction of lithium in the Rhine basin around the French-German border, and is also studying a battery recycling project with environmental services group Suez.

Securing supplies of battery materials like lithium is a key priority for the French government, which is funding projects by Eramet and other firms such as Imerys.