A key supplier of Toyota Motor Corp. has formed a partnership to mine lithium in Argentina, securing greater access to a metal critical to the production of future hybrids and electric cars.
The partnership, announced late Tuesday, includes Toyota Tsusho Corp. and Australian miner Orocobre Ltd. They will develop a lithium mine in northwestern Argentina, and the project is expected to cost about $100 million, Orocobre Chairman James Calaway said.
Lithium will play a bigger role in the auto industry, especially at Toyota, which has plans to sharply boost its hybrid and electric vehicle production this decade. The lightest metal on the periodic table, lithium is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries – currently found mostly in cell phones and laptops but expected to be more widely used in future automobile batteries.
“This generation and the next generation of batteries in automobiles … is going to be lithium,” said Don Hillebrand, director of the Transportation Research Center at Argonne National Laboratory. “Looking at the cutting edge stuff 10 or 30 years out, that’s going to be lithium too, and probably more lithium intensive.”
Lithium-ion batteries currently have a small role in the auto industry. Current hybrids, like the top-selling Toyota Prius and Honda Motor Co.’s Insight sedans, use nickel-metal hydride batteries. These are better suited for the constant recharging and discharging that takes place in hybrid motors, which switch between gasoline and electric battery power. However, they store less energy than lithium-ion batteries.
Conventional hybrids are widely expected to give way in the coming years to plug-in hybrids. These, unlike traditional hybrids, can be plugged into a wall socket and run for long stretches on electricity alone. Toyota is launching plug-in hybrids along with battery-powered cars running solely on electricity starting in model-year 2012. Both will be powered by lithium-ion batteries.
Last week, the company announced plans to double its global hybrid sales to 1 million annually, with many likely to be powered with lithium-ion batteries.
In addition, the Chevrolet Volt, slated to go on sale this year, will be powered with lithium-ion batteries supplied by LG Chem Ltd. of South Korea. The Tesla Roadster sports car is powered entirely by a lithium-ion battery.
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