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Apple to Become a Player in Batteries?

The question on a lot of investors’ minds these days is: What the heck is Apple (AAPL) up to?

The big rumor, which I am sure you have heard, is that the company will develop an electric car by 2020.

But, like my colleague Greg Miller, I don’t believe the vehicle market is Apple’s target; that industry’s profit margins are simply too low for the tech giant.

Even if Apple bought Tesla Motors (TSLA), it would have to compete against the likes of BMW, Toyota (TM), Nissan (NSANY), and others. All of whom already have their version of an electric vehicle with an established supply chain.

It just doesn’t make sense for Apple to fight its way into a low-margin business. However, there are clues out there as to what Apple’s real target is.

Lawsuit Offers Clues

One obvious clue comes from the lawsuit against Apple by the electric-car battery maker, A123 Systems (AONEQ.PK), which recently declared bankruptcy.

The company accused Apple of “systematically hiring away its valuable high tech and engineering employees.” The lawsuit went on to claim, “they [Apple] are doing so in an effort to establish a battery division that is similar, if not identical, to A123’s.”

So there we have it – Apple and electric batteries.

The poaching of A123 employees isn’t Apple’s first flirtation with batteries. Last year, the company held very preliminary discussions with researchers at MIT who had developed a new type of lithium battery.

So, is Apple’s real target the energy storage market?

It very well could be, says an article by Chris Berry for InvestorIntel. After all, Berry says, the energy storage business is several times the size of the electric vehicles market, and it’s growing rapidly.

Market research firm IHS says the energy storage market will reach six gigawatts in annual installations in 2017 and 40 gigawatts in 2022. Installations were only 0.34 gigawatts in 2012 and 2013.

Berry says this growth pace could turn the industry into a $60-billion business in 2013. Currently, it’s only worth between $4 billion and $5 billion.

Other firms besides Apple see the industry’s potential, and deals are happening at a quickening rate.

Already this year, Japan’s Asahi Kasei bought Polypore’s (PPO) energy storage business, and Korea’s Samsung (SSNLF) SDI purchased Magna International’s (MGA) battery pack division.

Asahi Kasei’s President, Toshio Asano, said, “We’ve been putting our resources in rechargeable batteries for personal computers and smartphones, but the next big market is electric and hybrid cars.”

Samsung SDI, which supplies batteries for BMW’s electric vehicles, echoed similar thoughts. Apple may be thinking the same thing…

Effect on Commodities

All of this action in the battery space is fantastic news for certain commodities. Namely, the so-called energy metals and minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, and graphite, which I have spoken about in previous articles.

I contacted Chris Berry via email for his thoughts on the matter.

“My sense is that when you factor in plans that Tesla, Apple, [and] LG Chem all have for growth in their respective industries, demand rates for select energy metals like lithium or cobalt will remain well above global GDP growth rates,” Berry wrote.

That is the key point here for investors, demand for these metals will be well over GDP growth rates.

Berry added a salient point, “I am focused on current producers of these commodities, as I think they have the production experience and capacity to handle demand in the near term.”

And the chase continues,

Tim Maverick

Tim Maverick

, Senior Correspondent

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