Welcome to the latter-day gold rush. The increasingly coveted substance is the silver-white metal called lithium, and it represents one of the most exciting opportunities in the resource sector.

Lithium is used to create heat-resistant glass, ceramics and lubricants. It's also used in a variety of industrial applications, such as steel and aluminum production. In the field of drug treatment, it's widely used to alleviate depression and bio-polar disorder.

However, the biggest growth driver for lithium is the burgeoning demand for lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy. Below, we examine the smartest lithium play now.

Elon Musk, co-founder, and CEO of Tesla (TSLA) has indicated that he seeks a lithium supply to fill enough batteries to power 500,000 of the company's EVs per year by 2020.

Tesla has jumped ahead of the competition by starting construction of its lithium battery Giga factory that's on track to produce 35 gigawatts of lithium batteries per year by 2018. Tesla broke ground on the gigafactory in 2014 outside Sparks, Nevada, and officially launched battery cell production in January 2017.

Industrial giant General Electric (GE) also has made significant forays into lithium-based solutions, by developing grid-scale energy storage systems for large end users such as electric utilities.

As such, both GE and Tesla are indirect lithium plays, as well as drivers of demand.

The real winners will be mining companies. The strategists at Credit Suisse (CS) assert that demand for lithium could outstrip supply in 2020 by 25%. The research firm Markets and Markets estimates the value of the global lithium-compounds market to reach $5.87 billion by 2020, for a compound annual growth rate of 13.22% between 2015 and 2020.

It all adds up to persistent demand for companies that mine lithium. Not surprisingly, smaller lithium mining companies are popping up to exploit the bonanza for the metal, but many are thinly capitalized penny stocks and highly risky.

For a safer lithium play, consider Albemarle (ALB) . Founded in 1994 and based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Albemarle boasts a market cap of $10.3 billion and a diverse portfolio of products.

ALB offers lithium compounds for applications in batteries, high-performance greases, car tires, plastic bottles, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other industrial applications and consumer products. The company also develops specialty chemicals worldwide.

Over the past 12 months, Albemarle has ridden the lithium boom to see its share price jump 79.41%. Year to date, the stock is up 19.26%. And yet, there's still room for further capital appreciation.

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The average analyst estimate is that earnings growth will reach 15.60% next year on a year-over-year basis, and 5.33% over the next five years on an annualized basis.

If you want to invest in the lithium boom, buy shares of ALB before they get priced out of reach.

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John Persinos is an analyst with Investing Daily. At the time of publication, he owned stock in General Electric.

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