A Washington-based company has won approvals from the State Land Department to begin exploring a 640-acre site in Southern Arizona for potential mining of lithium, a metal used in batteries, lubricants and drugs.

Gryphon Resources Inc., based in Bellingham, Wash., said it has won state approval for 11 exploration-permit applications it filed for exploration of the area.

The exact location of the site was not immediately available. Gryphon officials could not be reached for comment Monday at offices listed in Bellingham and Scottsdale.

An official of the State Land Department confirmed that the agency approved 11 exploration permits for Gryphon in Graham County.

Gryphon President and CEO Alan Muller said in a news release that the company plans to launch exploration at the site "in the very near future."

On its website, the company says it plans to conduct exploratory work in 2011, including surface sampling, reconnaissance drilling and metallurgical testing, followed by a pre-feasibility study. That work is expected to be completed by the spring of 2013, the company says.

Lithium, which is mined from rock or underwater brines, is used in lithium-ion batteries that power many electronic devices and in a new generation of electric cars.

The top lithium-producing nations last year were Chile, Australia, China and Argentina, according to U.S. Geological Survey data cited by Gryphon.

Though lithium demand has softened amid the global economic slump, industry experts expect annual growth of 3 to 5 percent over the next 10 years, the company said. Demand for lithium-powered vehicles is expected to increase fivefold by 2012, the company said.

The properties Gryphon plans to explore may have "large volumes of brine containing potentially economic concentrations of lithium," the company said.

Gryphon said it acquired the rights to explore the 11 properties in July.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.