January 08, 2024 , in technology


Beyond Lithium-Ion: Where is Battery Technology Going?

LI-ION battery technology has undergone a remarkable evolution over the last half-century. But can the technology meet the challenges of the green economy and what are the alternatives?

Eidosmedia Lithium-Ion batteries

Beyond Lithium-Ion | Eidosmedia

In 2019 the Nobel prize for chemistry went to the team behind behind a battery technology. The technology was the lithium-ion (LI-ION) cell and the award recognized the fundamental role that LI-ION energy storage has played in our lives in the thirty-plus years since Sony first commercialized it in 1991.

In fact, from laptops to smartphones to electric cars, LI-ION batteries seem to become more integral to a functioning society every year, and that momentum shows no signs of slowing. As the power grid goes green and electric vehicles make up bigger and bigger shares of the automobile market, the demands for — and on — LI-ION batteries grow. Are they up to the challenge?

In this article we'll look at what’s next for the LI-ION batteries so many of us rely on and ask how much more performance can be squeezed out of these modern marvels of energy storage.

The battery of the future

Decades of iterating on LI-ION batteries have driven battery life up and prices down and resulted in batteries so powerful they can power vehicles for hundreds of miles, store power from solar panels and windmills, or even run a house. As the list of possible uses for LI-ION grows, so does the demand for ever cheaper and more efficient batteries. As the MIT Technology Review puts it, “The goal is even cheaper batteries that will provide cheap storage for the grid and allow EVs to travel far greater distances on a charge.”

LI-ION technology is now very big business. The Financial Times (FT) reports, “Global lithium ion battery revenues will grow to $700bn a year by 2035, according to consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, by which time $730bn will have to be poured into battery plants, mines and processing facilities to meet the need not just for lithium but for other ingredients including nickel and cobalt.”

Lithium-ion technology has undergone a number of variations over the years and now encompasses a wide range of battery types used for a variety of purposes. For instance, FT says, “In the electric car market two main cathode chemistries are fighting it out: NMC, which uses lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt in varying quantities, and LFP made of lithium, iron and phosphate.”

Still, as society grows more reliant on batteries, the limitations of LI-ION technology are becoming more apparent. Whether or not they are capable of keeping up with emerging needs remains to be seen, but obvious limitations — and new competitors — are giving the workhorse of the battery world a run for its money.

How green are LI-ION batteries?

Lithium-ion technology has played an important role in reducing environmental impact, but the fact remains that the credentials of the raw materials used to manufacture them - lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, and manganese - are not the greenest.

Extracting these minerals, especially the lithium itself, can be environmentally damaging and often has further-reaching consequences. Habitat loss, water depletion, and harm to the indigenous people who live in the areas of South America where lithium is prevalent are all of grave concern. Add to that the threat of potential contamination from toxic chemicals used in the mining process, and it’s clear to see that LI-ION batteries are not the complete answer to building a greener, more sustainable future.

The alternatives to LI-ION technology

Driven by the accelerating growth of the potential market for mobile energy storage, the search for improvements and alternatives to LI-ION technology has thrown up a number of alternative candidates. Some of them offer dramatically better performance than current solutions, others significantly lower costs.

Solid-state batteries - the kiss of death?

One of the most promising new candidates is the solid-state LiI-ION technology that is already finding its way into laptops and other household items. As MIT Technology Review explains it, “One advance to keep an eye on this year is in so-called solid-state batteries. Lithium-ion batteries and related chemistries use a liquid electrolyte that shuttles charge around; solid-state batteries replace this liquid with ceramics or other solid materials.”

Carmaker Toyota has recently announced a solid state battery technology that has been described as the 'kiss of death' for the internal combustion engine because it addresses the two major limitations of current battery technologies: range and charging time.

With an expected range of around 1200 km and a charging time of 10 minutes, as reported by the Financial Times, Toyota's battery solutions, scheduled to come onto the market in 2027/8, would be a 'drop-in solution' for most current ICE car users.

The lack of a liquid electrolyte also eliminates the fire hazard represented by current EV battery technologies. DW.com even suggests they may make electric flight feasible.

Sodium-ion batteries

Sodium-based batteries are not new. In fact, they have already competed with and lost to lithium-ion batteries — but this cheaper alternative is getting a second look as the race to fill the need for batteries speeds up. CNBC reports, “Excitement around sodium-ion batteries picked up after the world’s largest EV battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL), revealed in 2021 that it was investing in the technology, with plans to establish a basic industrial supply chain by this year.”

While sodium-ion batteries can’t compete with lithium-ion batteries when it comes to range, they are significantly cheaper. Stationary sodium-ion batteries are also being used in place of EV chargers to help minimize the stress on the grid when a row of charging stations fills up all at once. Companies like Chevron and United Airlines are already investing in this sodium-ion options.

Iron-air batteries

Most of what you need to know about iron-air batteries is right there in the name. These batteries bring two familiar elements together to use another familiar process to create and capture energy. Berkeley-based Form Energy uses the process of creating — and then reversing — rust to create energy.

As PBS’s Nova reports, “Iron-air batteries capture that energy and turn it into electrical current—then recharge by reversing the reaction, ‘unrusting’ the iron and returning it to its metallic form. NASA experimented with rust-based batteries in the 1960s, but the resulting units were considered too heavy, slow, and clunky to be good for much.” Still, Form Energy hopes iron-air batteries may be ready for primetime. The company is more focused on energy storage for the power grid than on EVs or mobile devices. Form has promised to deliver batteries to its first clients, utilities providing power in Minnesota, Colorado, and Georgia, starting in 2024.

More than one solution to a complicated problem

Overhauling the global power grid and reimagining the way we fuel transportation is no small task — and it looks like a variety of battery solutions will be needed to address the challenges ahead. For now, lithium-ion batteries still win when it comes to combining power, price, and portability, making them the clear choice for mobile devices and EVs. However, when it comes to storing energy over the longer term, new options are ready to help fill the gaps with cheaper, more environmentally friendly solutions.


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