The metal lithium is likely to be a major ingredient in the next generation of batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. Some producers are raising capital to develop the necessary resources.
Galaxy Resources Ltd., of West Perth, Australia, plans to raise about A$54 million (US$47 million) in an equity placement to start a new mine in Western Australia. The company also plans to build a mineral-processing plant in the Jiangsu province of China. Galaxy earlier received A$26 million from Chinese private investor Creat Group Co., which agreed to take a 19.9% stake in the mining company and to provide debt finance of about A$130 million to develop the Mt. Cattlin mine in Ravensthorpe, Australia.
Meanwhile, Toronto-based Lithium Americas Corp., a junior mining company, is seeking C$7.5 million (US$7 million) to verify the reserves of a property it secured in Argentina. Junior mining companies are primarily involved in exploration. Lithium Americas, unlike some lithium miners, focuses on brine lakes, where lithium is extracted more cheaply than from rock formations.
If the company finds potential in the Argentinian lake, in the Puna region, it will build a pilot plant for converting the liquid into carbonate, says Chief Executive Waldo Perez.
"This project is faster to put into production than metals mining because you have a liquid; the moment you're pumping you're almost in business," says Mr. Perez.
Privately held Lithium Americas plans to file for an initial public offering later this year, in which it would raise between C$25 million and C$50 million, says Pat DiCapo, managing director of Toronto-based PowerOne Capital Markets Ltd., a merchant bank that specializes in junior mining companies and an agent in the private placement.
Analysts at Thomas Weisel Partners LLC estimate that if hybrid and electric-vehicle sales reach 10% of total vehicle sales, the market for advanced auto batteries will grow to between $10 billion and $15 billion in 2015 to 2020. The current automotive lead-acid battery market is valued between $7 billion and $10 billion, those analysts say."
"FMC - an established lithium miner with producing Salars in the same Salta province claims that "Life begins with LI" and we can not argue as well with the news coming daily on electric cars development and governments push towards alternative energy use and reduced carbon footprint."
Countries, Motivated by Global Warming, Oil Offer Help With Costly Technical Hurdles to a Mass Market
Governments around the world are increasingly pumping money into electric car projects, hoping the new vehicles can be part of the solution to major problems from global warming to dependence on oil.
China, the U.S. and France are among the governments that have so far pledged to spend up to $15 billion in the next five years in tax incentives, levies, subsidies and consumer bonuses to help car companies develop electric cars, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
The Renault Zoe Z.E. Concept Electric car is seen on the first press day of the Frankfurt Motor Show on Sept. 15.
The aid is crucial to car makers' chances of success in turning electric cars into mass-market products. At the Tokyo Motor Show, which opens to the media Wednesday, Nissan Motor Co. plans to unveil a new electric car resembling a scooter. It is also aiming for 20,000 orders of another electric car, the Leaf, in the U.S. next year.
But car makers are being held back by the high cost of developing and running them -- and the technical difficulty of keeping them charged.
It's a chicken-and-egg challenge facing many new mass-market products: Consumers will buy electric cars only when they are cheap and convenient enough to use, but that will happen only if lots of people buy the vehicles. So governments are trying to kick start the market.
"Government help is absolutely imperative at least over the next few years," says Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Nissan's head of technology and product development. "Without those incentives, the electric-battery car is not going to be accepted in the marketplace any time soon and anywhere around the world." Policy makers say governments like the idea of electric vehicles because regular gas automobiles depend on oil that is often imported and is a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions, which they have pledged to cut.
Even cars that run off coal-produced electricity produce far less carbon dioxide than a gasoline engine. In the case where electricity is produced by nuclear and wind power, almost no carbon dioxide is produced.
By giving financial aid, governments are also giving their car makers a head start in a potentially big future industry.
Past attempts to commercialize electric vehicles have always floundered: The batteries cost too much, running out hours before the cars had driven very far and then taking hours to recharge.
Photos: Tokyo Motor Show
Recently, however, the technology has improved. So-called concept electric cars aimed at the mass market claim to be able to run about 100 miles on a single charge thanks to new battery technology. The cost of batteries is still way too high, however, costing some $10,000 each. Japan's Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has put a small electric car on sale at four million yen, or more than $40,000, but is losing money even at that price.
"The most important thing that governments do is to give signals to consumers for what the expectation is for adoption of electric vehicles in the future -- like an announcement to get off oil," says Shai Agassi, chief executive of Better Place PLC, which is developing recharging and battery-swapping stations in Israel and Denmark.
The main way governments are contributing to electric-car development is through consumer incentives. France has announced a €5,000 bonus ($7,500) for buyers of cars with very low emissions, and it slaps a penalty tax on gas-guzzlers. China is running a 20-billion-yuan incentive program ($2.9 billion) for public and service sector vehicles, such as buses, taxis and government-use vehicles. In Japan, central and local government subsidies will amount to $10,000 per car in some cases.
Israel taxes cars that use gasoline by as much as 92% of their value, but it has reduced the tax to 10% for electric cars. Denmark levies a tax of more than the price of the car for some vehicles, but will reduce this to zero for electric models.
The other major government investment is in electric-vehicle technology. The U.S. government earlier this year offered $2.4 billion in grants to develop green auto technology, some of which is going to batteries.
China has since the beginning of the century been funding "new energy" vehicles, which include electric and other low-emission cars. In January it announced another 10 billion yuan in such funds from this year to 2011.
The immediate motivation for China is to combat rising energy costs, which could otherwise threaten the country's fast growth. Cities would also like to reduce pollution, and local governments have said they will start running fleets of electric buses.
In addition, China sees an opportunity to jump into the car industry despite getting a late start in production of traditional cars. Electric vehicles provided an opportunity for China to "catch up with and exceed developed countries" in the auto industry, Chinese Technology Minister Wan Gang told an industry conference earlier this year.
Though every mass-market auto maker has an electric car prototype, there are few on the road. If the first models flop because they're still impractical, or if the recent surge in the price of oil fades, governments might lose interest.—Ellen Zhu in Shanghai contributed to this article."