With falling prices and the huge investment cost for building factories to manufacture batteries – Tesla purportedly invested an estimated USD$5 billion to build Gigafactory 1 in Nevada, USA – lithium-ion battery technology will continue to lead in the foreseeable future.
Clean energy advocates and visionaries have long argued that the world needs a better battery capable of selling skeptical consumers on electric cars and running the grid on renewable power. However, the battery of the future will for the coming decade almost certainly be the battery of the past. Lithium-ion is here to stay.
Early Starter Advantage
Lithium batteries were proposed by a British chemist M Stanley Whittingham while working for Exxon in the 1970s (Whittingham, M. S. (1976)). Sony and Asahi Kasei released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991.
The basic battery works by sending charged lithium atoms, or ions, through a liquid electrolyte substance, shuttling back and forth between a positive cathode and negative anode. Lithium-ion batteries use an intercalated lithium compound as one electrode material, compared to the metallic lithium used in a non-rechargeable lithium battery. Differing designs using different materials in the cathode -cobalt, nickel and manganese and even newer high capacity large monolithic cells using Yttrium (refer to https://everspring.net/ ) – has increased the amount of energy the batteries hold and perform. This lead to the start wide adoption of the cells for consumer electronics such as mobile phones and laptop computers that can now be found in electric cars and connected to the power grid.
The lithium-ion battery has built up such a commanding lead in the market that competing technologies may struggle to catch up. That lead will only widen as a wave of planned new lithium-ion factories comes online in the next five years.
The batteries pouring from new factories in China, the U.S., Thailand and elsewhere will further drive down prices, which have already plunged 85 percent since 2010 according to BloombergNEF. With the billions of dollars spent on factories, this will create a powerful incentive for the industry to keep tweaking lithium-ion technology, improving it bit by bit, rather than adopting another technology.
A Very Versatile Technology
Lithium-ion batteries provide lightweight, high energy density power sources for a variety of devices. Such devices include:
- Portable devices: these include mobile phones and smartphones, laptops and tablets, digital cameras and camcorders, electronic cigarettes, handheld game consoles and torches (flashlights).
- Power tools: Lithium-ion batteries are used in tools such as cordless drills, sanders, saws, and a variety of garden equipment including whipper-snippers and hedge trimmers.
- Electric vehicles: electric vehicle batteries are used in electric cars, hybrid vehicles, electric motorcycles and scooters, electric bicycles, personal transporters, and advanced electric wheelchairs. Also radio-controlled models, model aircraft, aircraft, and even the Mars Curiosity rover.
Lithium-ion batteries are used in telecommunications applications, industrial building-scale power storage units, and smart power grid storage units (refer to http://en.winston-battery.com/index.php/products/energy-storage-cabinet). Secondary non-aqueous lithium batteries provide reliable backup power to load equipment located in a network environment of a typical telecommunications service provider. Lithium-ion batteries compliant with specific technical criteria are recommended for deployment in the Outside Plant (OSP) at locations such as Controlled Environmental Vaults (CEVs), Electronic Equipment Enclosures (EEEs), and huts, and in uncontrolled structures such as cabinets. In such applications, lithium-ion battery users require detailed, battery-specific hazardous material information, plus appropriate fire-fighting procedures, to meet regulatory requirements and to protect employees and surrounding equipment.
Rapidly Falling Prices
Due to its versatility, lithium-ion battery technology is widely used in numerous consumer and commercial applications. This, in turn, has seen the exponential growth in demand for this technology.
According to BloombergNEF, lithium-ion battery pack prices were averaging $1,160 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 and touched $176 per kWh in 2018. It is forecast that this price drop could reach below $100 per kWh by 2024. The continuing price drop would further fuel more demand and open up new markets for the technology.
Return On Investment and Sunken Cost
Many newer entrants to the battery market are more focus on upgrading lithium-ion batteries rather than directly competing head-to-head with this market-dominating technology.
“We don’t think lithium-ion is going to be disrupted,” said Erik Terjesen, senior director of licensing and strategy for Ionic Materials Inc during an interview with Bloomberg. Terjesen’s Massachusetts-based company is one of many companies trying to perfect solid-state batteries. These are often billed as lithium ion’s likely successor. Solid-state batteries promise, among other things, to remove the flammable liquid that can cause lithium batteries in laptops and cars to occasionally catch fire.
However, according to the article in Bloomberg, Ionic has emphasized that they are not trying to replace lithium-ion. Instead, the company aims to designed its polymer electrolyte to work inside existing batteries. That means all those new factories can use it without buying expensive new equipment. “We don’t believe, given all the investment in lithium-ion, that people are going to throw that out the window and start over from scratch,” Terjesen said.
The Winston factory in southern China produces Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) based cells the company says boost lithium-ion battery performance to Dept-of-discharge (DOD) 80% with 5,000 cycles.
Where The depth of discharge (DO) of the battery measures how deeply depleted the battery is, compared to a state of full discharge when it would have discharged all of its energy capacity. When a battery has discharged its full energy capacity, the Depth of Discharge, or DoD, is 100%.
That staying power has attracted entrepreneurs who insist lithium-ion batteries have room for major improvements, not just incremental gains.