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Albemarle Leads in Lithium

A Charlotte, North Carolina–based company that started life as a paper mill is now the world’s largest lithium producer—and “a key cog in a tight global supply chain for battery metals used in electric cars, smartphones and other applications at a time when governments are pushing to electrify their economies,” according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

What’s going on: Albemarle is one of the few companies that can produce lithium at a competitive cost, thanks in large part to its 2015 purchase of a lithium producer in New Jersey.

  • The global lithium market has grown an enormous 2,900% since that purchase, to $48 billion from $1.6 billion.
  • To keep up with demand, “Albemarle has embarked on new acquisitions and capacity building,” including an ongoing bid to purchase Australian lithium miner Liontown Resources.
  • Last month, Albemarle—which also mines lithium at operations in Nevada and Chile—announced plans to double the capacity of a lithium hydroxide plant in Western Australia in which it has an 85% stake.
  • Lithium is also used in “industrial-scale batteries that can store energy from solar panels and wind farms and smaller ones for residential use.”

Competing with China: The company’s “integrated approach has put it at the center of Western efforts to diversify supply lines” to counter China’s dominance in the electric-vehicle market.

  • “China has emerged as a global leader in EV production and is spending billions to boost its access to lithium-mine production globally. Meanwhile, it dominates the business of refining lithium extracted elsewhere in the world. The West is trying to catch up.”

What’s next: Last fall, the Department of Energy gave Albermarle a grant of nearly $150 million to produce EV batteries.

  • In March, the company said it would spend more than $1.3 billion on a lithium-processing plant in South Carolina.
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