Lithium’s increasing importance is good news for Charlotte region’s

The lab seems modest from the street, a small white building tucked among the smokestacks of FMC Lithium’s 900-acre campus. But inside, the work is revolutionary: finding ways to make electric-car batteries cheaper, safer and longer-lasting.

A small team of researchers gathered inside that recent day, peering through a microscope at stabilized lithium powder, a material they say is safe to handle, easy to ship and compatible with cost-effective materials. Magnified, it looked like silver spheres — "precious pearls," some customers say — as it dissolved onto a host material, an important step in the battery-making process.

"It just happens in front of your eyes," said energy research group leader Marina Yakovleva. "It becomes a lithium-ion battery." After a rough few years, FMC Lithium is betting on those batteries, used increasingly in cell phones and laptops and, when they hit the market later this year, electric cars, to catapult it out of the recession and into the future.

The Charlotte-based company, an arm of the $2.8 billion chemical company FMC Corp., mines lithium in South America, processes it and supplies it to companies making everything from batteries to temperature-resistant glass to cholesterol medicine.

Today, a quarter of the company’s sales come from the energy sector, compared with 15 percent a decade ago and none in the 1940s, when the company began collecting lithium from a mine in Kings Mountain, close to the plant in Bessemer City, 30 miles west of Charlotte.

The modern lithium industry emerged in the 1940s, when the U.S. government began mining the metal for military use. In the years that followed, companies such as FMC Lithium sold the product for aluminum, glass and ceramics, and later, uses ranging from greases and lubricants to plastics to pharmaceuticals.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries became popular in the 1990s. Around that time, FMC Lithium discovered a cheaper, less environmentally invasive alternative to the Kings Mountain mine: dry lakebeds, rich with lithium, in the mountains of Argentina.

It closed its N.C. mine in 1998, putting more than 70 people out of work. Today, there are about 230 workers in Bessemer City, down from 350 in the late 1990s. FMC Lithium has about 600 employees total in its Charlotte headquarters, Bessemer City plant and facilities in Argentina, China, England and India.

Company officials attribute part of the decline to the recession: Sales at FMC Lithium fell 24 percent in 2009 over the year before, global commercial director Eric Norris said.

And despite signs of a recovery, he said it could take until 2011 or 2012 before sales climb back to 2008 levels. But hope has come in the energy sector’s growing importance.

There are now more than 200 energy-related companies, employing 21,000 workers, in the Charlotte region, said David Swenson, vice president of economic development services for the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

Among them: Celgard LLC, which makes porous membranes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and which made news recently when President Barack Obama chose it as the site of his Charlotte appearance. FMC competitor Chemetall Foote Corp. in Kings Mountain is another.

The regional partnership is actively recruiting energy-storage companies — potential customers for companies such as FMC Lithium — and officials there expect that segment to grow substantially in the years to come, Swenson said.

"It’s a great opportunity for the Charlotte new energy capital," he said. "As you see electric vehicles come into the marketplace, battery energy storage will play a bigger role."

At FMC Lithium, the potential for further growth has gotten company officials thinking about expanding. In another 10 years, it will be 40 percent of the company’s sales if electric cars have even moderate success. "That’s how this fairly old business has become a new business again," Norris said.

FMC Lithium officials expect sales to hit nearly $200million this year, up from $174million last year, he said. At FMC Corp., its parent company, first-quarter earnings climbed 10 percent over the same period last year, the company reported this month. Part of that is a result of the growing demand for lithium, the company said.

FMC Lithium is already preparing to capitalize. It opened its Center for Lithium Energy and Advanced Research — known as the CLEAR lab — in September 2008, and workers there are researching ways to improve batteries. The company anticipates hiring more people — likely in sales and marketing at first, as well as plant jobs, Norris said.

In the meantime, the work continues. Inside the lab that recent day, researchers in long coats and safety goggles showed off the lithium powder and raw material, scattered in petri dishes, and new products such as a large, flat battery, which they said is easier to cool than a traditional cylindrical battery.

The work has made the lab a popular destination for customers, who visit Bessemer City from around the world to test their products, said Yuan Gao, global marketing manager of energy storage.

He said Bessemer City and its small lab are becoming a model of the future. "Two-thirds of them, it’s their first trip to the U.S.," he said with a smile. "They’ve never been to D.C., but they’ve been to Bessemer City." 

By Kirsten Valle,