Mar 102010
Image by lennox_mcdough via Flickr

For many years, few metals drew bigger yawns from mining executives than lithium, a lightweight element long associated mostly with mood-stabilizing drugs.

Suddenly, the yawns are being replaced by eurekas. As awareness spreads that lithium is a crucial ingredient for hybrid and electric cars, a global hunt is under way for new supplies of the metal.

Toyota Tsusho, the material supplier for the big Japanese automaker, announced a joint venture in January with the Australian miner Orocobre to develop a $100 million lithium project in Argentina. That deal came only days after Magna International, the Canadian car parts company that is helping develop a battery-powered version of the Ford Focus, announced that it was investing $10 million in a small Canadian lithium firm that also has projects in Argentina.

They were the latest in a series of deals and projects announced over the last year, reflecting a new urgency among companies to assure themselves future supplies of the metal.

“There is a sea change under way,” James D. Calaway, the chairman of Orocobre, said. “We are at the front end potentially of a very significant increase in the demand for lithium for the emerging electric transportation sector.”

Mr. Calaway added, however, that the timing of any increase in lithium supply and demand was difficult to predict in large part because electric cars had yet to take off in any big way.

About 60 mining companies have begun feasibility studies in Argentina, Serbia and Nevada that could lead to more than $1 billion in new lithium projects in the next several years, while dozens of smaller projects are being proposed in China, Finland, Mexico and Canada.

The companies are competing for construction financing, and the future of most of the projects will depend on how popular electric cars eventually become. That is an open question since batteries remain expensive, recharging stations need to be developed, and consumer taste for cars that depend on regular stops at electric outlets remains untested.

“It’s moving so fast,” said Edward R. Anderson, president of TRU Group, a consultancy firm that specializes in the lithium industry. “There are a lot of people throwing money into this, and a lot of people are going to lose their money.”

In the meantime the four biggest current producers, which mine and otherwise gather lithium in Chile, Argentina and Australia, say they are planning to expand long-running projects as future demand warrants.

In Bolivia, which has almost half of the world’s reserves, the leftist government is building a pilot production plant and is drilling exploratory holes. That Bolivia is a remote, unstable country often hostile to foreign investment has helped spur interest in producing lithium in neighboring Argentina and Chile, in Australia, and in the United States. Several Canadian and American companies are making claims about future production prospects in Nevada, though few analysts foresee large-scale production from that state.

While most experts are skeptical that meaningful amounts of lithium can be produced domestically, they maintain that adequate supplies will be available from sources outside of Bolivia for many years to come and note that the biggest producer, Chile, is a dependable American ally.

Most of the lithium market serves a variety of industrial applications. About a quarter of all lithium produced is used for energy storage, in everything from cellphones to laptop computers to digital cameras.

That proportion stands to increase sharply if battery-powered cars take off. Lithium-ion batteries are the favored battery type for electric and hybrid vehicles because they carry more energy with less weight than other materials and because they lose their charge more slowly. They store about three times as much as energy per pound as a nickel-metal hybrid battery.

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