The Lithium Chase

By Clifford Krauss in the New York Times, March 9 2010

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.”

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