(Reuters) – As global demand for lithium hits overdrive, Albemarle Corp is investing millions of dollars to engineer specialized types of the light metal for electric car batteries, part of a strategy to remain the niche market’s top producer.
The pivot comes as battery makers such as Panasonic Corp, the sole battery supplier to Tesla Inc, increasingly demand more purified versions of lithium that can help boost electricity storage and increase a battery’s charge, shaping Albemarle’s strategy, according to sources and documents reviewed by Reuters and confirmed by the company.
Once used primarily as a pharmacological treatment for bipolar disorder, lithium has become one of the world’s most in-demand commodities thanks to the rising popularity of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries.
Roughly 500,000 electric vehicles were sold globally in 2016, a figure that is expected to jump sevenfold by 2022, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Albemarle’s strategy, which includes developing a battery research center near its North Carolina headquarters, is aimed at setting it apart from its major competitors, including Chile’s SQM and China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp.