Toyota Tsusho to wait on EV market before upping lithium investment

NAGOYA, Japan, June 21 (Reuters) - Toyota Tsusho Corp , one of the world’s biggest lithium producers, said on Friday it would take at least two more years to properly gauge the global electric vehicle (EV) market’s direction before deciding whether to further expand supply.

Over the next 2-3 years, major automakers would be introducing more electric cars, making EVs less of a fringe product, Masaharu Katayama, head of the company’s strategic metals unit, told Reuters in an interview.

That’s also when it would become clear if people use these vehicles in any fundamentally different way than traditional automobiles, he said, speaking at the company’s headquarters in Nagoya, Japan.

“When we have clarity on that, we can have much more clarity on demand for lithium.” Lithium is one of the core ingredients to make EV batteries.

The EV market has boomed in recent years, but still makes up just a fraction of total car sales. Demand has been supported by subsidies and ever-tightening environmental regulations, particularly in China and Europe.

So far, Tesla Inc and a handful of Chinese manufacturers have dominated the market, with Nissan Motor Co’s Leaf being the most prominent offering from a major automaker.

However, industry giants are ramping up those efforts. Volkswagen AG has promised almost 70 new electric models over the next decade, while General Motors, which has stated its commitment to an “all-electric future,” plans to make its luxury Cadillac brand electric only.

Toyota Tsusho, which is part of the Toyota Group headed by Toyota Motor Corp, currently produces about 15,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate at its plant in Argentina through a joint venture with Australian miner Orocobre. It’s currently in the process of expanding production to 42,500 tonnes from 2021.

Katayama says the “primary choice” if Toyota Tsusho decides to increase production would be to expand the project again, rather than hunting for new supply.

“Our cost is very low, so we’re very competitive. ..If we need more production, the resources are there. We just need to build another plant.”

Katayama expects demand for lithium for decades, because it’s the most basic ingredient of EV batteries. But he sees the rarer and more expensive metal cobalt as more like a spice, and vulnerable to industry-wide efforts to reduce the amount required for battery production.

Despite that, Katayama said Toyota Tsusho is currently scouting for investment opportunities in cobalt mines, although it’s at an early stage. He declined to elaborate on the region or size of investments they are eyeing.

He did say that securing cobalt supply is essential if producers are to prevent China from dominating the market the way it’s done in rare earths, an obscure class of metals essential for technologies smartphones to satellites, and EVs.

China used that dominance in 2010 amid a diplomatic row with Tokyo over a chain of disputed islets, provoking a crisis that became known in Japan as the “rare earth shock”.

“Investment is not enough, if you think about how China has maybe half the cobalt resources,” Katayama said.

“Political influence is a worry. We have the trauma from rare earths.” (Reporting by Kevin Buckland; Editing by Rashmi Aich)