A hint from Bush: Go long on lithium?

Cagey commodity investors took notice when the president mentioned battery technology in his State of the Union address.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, State of the Union, Bolivia,

For a president with such low approval ratings, the State of the Union speech sure received a lot of attention. The environmental bloggers have been especially avid — Grist’s minute-by-minute deconstruction of the speech leaves little scraps for the rest of the blogosphere to gnaw over.

But some sections of Bush’s address to the nation didn’t get as much coverage as others. The good folks over at Resource Investor, who mainly care about politics to the extent that it has an impact on the direction commodity prices are headed, gave the SOTU a careful going over for what it might mean for far-thinking investors.

For example, reporter/investment advisor Jack Lifton picked up on Bush’s reference to hybrids: “We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles…” and decided that this could only portend advances in lithium-ion technology.

But the U.S. is lagging in such technology. “Even though,” lamented Lifton, “the technology was invented in the U.S. and developed here first.”

Time for true leadership!

Japan, Korea and China already nationally sponsor lithium ion battery technology development. Companies in those countries already produce lithium ion batteries for powering portable personal entertainment devices…

The race is thus already on to develop lithium ion batteries large enough and powerful enough to safely and reliably be used to power vehicles and give them the range and performance of contemporary vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. The United States has large reserves of lithium in Nevada, and Chile has even larger reserves. We need to resolve not to waste these assets or let competing nations acquire them … No American company in the battery development industry is large enough to finance the development of an ideal lithium-ion battery. The major American battery manufacturers have a vested interest in existing lead-acid battery technology, and the American car companies simply don’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate a lithium-ion battery development program much less undertake one.



It will require an institution such as the National Academy of Science to oversee a Federal funded mini-Manhattan project to develop the battery technology that American car makers and equipment makers need to overcome the lead now held by Japan’s government backed, in battery development, car makers. The Toyota Prius should be a wake up call, not a call to surrender.

Alas, for the U.S. government to engage in such a project would require that vested special interests saw a profitable reason for it. After all, Bush would not be pumping up corn-based ethanol were it not for Archer-Daniels-Midland and a passel of Midwestern senators. But lithium advocates are not so well represented at the Department of Interior.

Reserves of lithium translates into brine pits from which the metal is extracted. Worldwide, Chile is the leading exporter and supplier of lithium, but the U.S. is also a significant producer, albeit mainly from one brine-pit operation in Nevada that is run by a subsidiary of a German company.

Poor, poor patriots — lithium isn’t traded like copper or gold, so your only opportunity to make an investment play would be by buying shares in a mining company, and there aren’t any American-owned lithium-mining companies.

But if you want to know who to watch for in the lithium battery future — that glorious day when the world is all driving plug-in hybrids, and the word “gasoline” evokes the same nostalgic quaintness as “horse-drawn buggy” — then I have just one word of advice for you.

Bolivia.

According to the United States Geological Survey, Bolivia has reserves of lithium larger than any known in the rest of the world. The USGS estimates Bolivia’s accessible geological reserves of lithium resources at 5.4 million tons. Chile, by contrast, has 3 million, China 1.1, and the U.S., a measly 410,000.

You heard it here first. Bolivian lithium.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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