Once upon a time, the world didn’t care much about lithium.

A decade after Sony developed lithium-ion batteries in 1991, the rise of smartphones and laptops in the early 2000s still wasn’t enough to dent the market. The light, reactive metal was mostly considered a useful additive for making aluminum, glass or industrial lubricants. Few thought of it as an element whose supply and demand could determine humanity's ability to avert catastrophic climate change.

How things have changed. Production is likely to grow 17 times between 2015 and 2030, thanks almost entirely to the voracious needs of the world’s growing electric vehicle fleet. When consumption runs hotter than mine supply, as has happened in recent years, surging metal prices have been sufficient to push up the cost of the battery-powered cars that use them. That’s contributed to carmakers’ downgrades of EV targets we’ve seen in recent months.