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From cellphones to laptops to electric vehicles, lithium makes up an increasingly important part of the technologies used in the daily lives of people around the world.
Certainly, lithium has an interesting history. In 1817, Johann Arfwedson discovered a soft, silver-white metal while working in a laboratory under his mentor in Sweden. The mentor, chemist Jöns Berzelius, named it after the Greek word for stone, “lithos.” Today, that alkali metal is known as lithium.
By the 1940s, people began using lithium to treat what was at the time considered ‘mania.’ Over 70 years later, such symptoms are now traditionally labeled as bipolar disorder or manic depression, but lithium is still one of the most common elements used to treat these mood disorders. Researchers also believe it was used for medicinal purposes as many as 1,800 years ago.
Along with its role in the pharmaceutical industry, lithium is primarily used in batteries as well as heat-resistant glass and ceramics. The element’s electrochemical potential makes it useful for battery nodes, and it has the ability to decrease the melting temperature of glass because of its high specific heat.
Overall, demand for lithium from the battery sector is expected to continue to rise in coming years.
Lithium can be found in igneous rocks and evaporated brines. Australia, Chile and China are currently the three largest producers of the metal in the world, though reports show Bolivia has the largest available reserve base, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Investing in lithium
Currently, lithium is experiencing fairly high demand. Lithium batteries are more energy efficient than traditional nickel-metal hydride batteries, so they are extremely desirable throughout economic sectors such as the automobile and electronics industries.
Moreover, this high demand is met by a limited supply, meaning investments in lithium would have a large profit potential. Even though market watchers such as Chris Berry of House Mountain Partners and the Disruptive Discoveries Journal have stated that there’s a slight overcapacity in the market right now, plans from Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) to build a lithium ion battery gigafactory have certainly taken the market by storm.
And with other megafactories on the horizon as well, plenty of analysts are calling for lithium prices to keep rising.
Unlike other commodities, it is not possible to invest in physical lithium. However, investors can buy stocks in lithium-production companies as well as exchange traded funds (ETFs).
The most popular lithium ETF is Global X Lithium (ARCA:LIT). It consists of a worldwide portfolio of companies in the lithium industry that are involved in everything from mining to battery production. This is a good way for investors to get exposure to the industry despite the fact that lithium is not traded on commodity exchanges.
Instead of investing in ETFs, investors can also buy shares in lithium companies at the junior, development or production stage. Here’s a look at some of the major companies in the space.
Sociedad Química y Minera (NYSE:SQM)
Known in English as the Chemical and Mining Company of Chile, this is the largest single producer of lithium in the world. By the end of 2012, SQM controlled 31 percent of the lithium market and its annual production capacity was 48,000 metric tons. However, the company also works with other minerals such as iodine and potassium, so investors will not only be putting their money toward lithium. The miner got some bad press in 2015 regarding disputes with Chile’s Corfo and allegations over tax evasion. However, SQM is still the lowest-cost producer in the market.
Also a major supplier of the world’s lithium, FMC owns the Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina. In addition to its lithium business, FMC also has agricultural and health and nutrition focused operations.
In January 2015, Albemarle completed its acquisition of Rockwood Holdings, which owns the only producing lithium brine operation in the United States, the Silver Peak mine in Nevada. Albemarle now also owns Rockwood’s Planta Salar in the Atacama region of Chile.