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affiliate has secured a stake in a major lithium project that could help the world's largest automaker maintain its lead in electric and hybrid cars.

Toyota Tsusho, in which Toyota has a 22% stake, has been chosen by the lithium project's owner to develop the Salar de Olaroz project in northern Argentina.

Australian-listed Orocobre said it picked Toyota Tsusho as a joint venture partner for the trading house's understanding of key future customers' supply chain situations.

The project's development costs could fall between $80 and $100 million. Toyota Tsusho will fund the completion of the feasibility study for the project.

Afterwards, the trading house will acquire a 25% stake in Salar de Olaroz. Toyota Tsusho is borrowing at a low rate from the Japanese government to secure a stake in the lithium project.

Initial commercial production is slated to begin in late 2011.

Lithium has become a hot commodity of late, as auto-companies increasingly seek to power their electric and hybrid vehicles with the more energy-efficient lithium-ion batteries.

Toyota reportedly is positioning itself to produce 1 million hybrid cars globally a year by 2011. That would be twice the volume of hybrids the company produced in 2009.

Toyota has 10 new hybrid models lined up for the coming years.

Toyota stock has slid by 2.5% to $89.40 Wednesday. Other auto-stocks are also down.



is down by 3.4% at $35.30, and



has edged lower at $11.60, down 1.1%.


( DAI) has fallen by 3.9% to $50.50.

-- Reported by Andrea Tse in New York

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