Mon, 24 Nov 2008
The Saudi Arabia of Lithium

Forbes Magazine

The gas engine made petroleum the world's biggest commodity. The electric car could do the same for the third element on the periodic table.

Nothing grows in the heart of the Salar de Atacama. this ancient Chilean lake bed 700 miles north of Santiago may be the driest place on Earth, a wasteland strewed with salt-encrusted rocks that resemble cow pies. Annual rainfall on the salar (which in Spanish means "salt lake") rarely tops a few millimeters. The cloudless skies combine with the high altitude, 1.4 miles above sea level, to produce punishing solar radiation, capable of frying exposed flesh in minutes.

Humans would steer clear of the Salar de Atacama were it not for the precious brine that bubbles 130 feet below its surface. When first pumped from the ground, the brine looks like slushy, dirt-stained snow, of the sort that piles up on Manhattan sidewalks after a spring flurry. But when left to broil beneath the desert sun, the water in the brine slowly evaporates, leaving behind a yellowy mineral bath that could easily be mistaken for olive oil.

This greasy solution yields the substance that makes modern life possible: lithium. The lightest of all metals, lithium is the key ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that keep cell phones and laptops humming. Chile is the Saudi Arabia of lithium. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this single ancient lake bed contains 27% of the world's reserve base of the metal.

Until recently lithium was a minor commodity, used in small quantities by manufacturers of glass, grease and mood-stabilizing drugs. But demand has skyrocketed in recent years, as BlackBerrys and iPods have become middle-class staples. Between 2003 and 2007 the battery industry doubled its consumption of lithium carbonate, the most common ingredient used in lithium-based products.

The lithium bonanza may just be starting. Lithium-ion batteries are integral to the automobile industry's plans to wean itself off fossil fuels. The hotly anticipated Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid car slated to debut in 2010, will use a lithium-ion battery alongside a 1.4-liter gas engine. Mercedes plans to roll out a hybrid version of its S-Class sedan in 2009 and will similarly rely on lithium-ion technology to produce superior mileage. Nissan (nasdaq: NSANY) is working with NEC to mass-produce lithium-ion batteries for hybrids, in hopes of churning out 65,000 per year by 2010.

Since a vehicle battery requires a hundred times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet's most strategic commodities. The rush is on to find and develop new sources of it, a race that has mining companies scouring the globe's remotest corners, from the high-altitude deserts of Chile and Bolivia to the wilds of northern Tibet. The prospectors seem undeterred by the possibility that lithium's automotive heyday could be cut short by the cost and complexity of lithium-ion batteries. They prefer instead to focus on optimistic forecasts. Kevin McCarthy, a commodity chemicals analyst at Bank of America (nyse: BAC), sees the potential for double-digit annual sales growth for lithium carbonate at least through 2012.

Such rosy short-term predictions have investors swooning over Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A., or SQM, the Chilean fertilizer and mining company that produces nearly a third of the world's lithium carbonate and whose leather-skinned employees brave the Salar de Atacama for the sake of gadget lovers. In the past three years the Big Board-traded shares of SQM have climbed from $11 to $22. In the first six months of 2008 SQM reported a profit of $191 million, up 103% from a year earlier, on sales of $787 million, up 41%.