Lithium-ion Batteries Remade the World — They Need to Change

Our mobile world would be impossible without them, but the technology is flawed and battery tech is due for an upgrade

Credit: iStock/Getty Images

The smartphone you are holding in your hand is more powerful than the entire NASA computing network used to put a human on the moon in 1969. It delivers instant, superfast connectivity to the largest mass communication network ever created, and can do it from almost anywhere in the world. And yet, all this would be useless if it wasn’t powered by another technological miracle — its powerful, chargeable and long-lived battery.

The first rechargeable lead-acid battery was developed in 1859 by the French physicist Gaston Planté. In 1980, John Goodenough, then a scientist at the University of Oxford, developed the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, which was commercialized by Sony and used for cellphone batteries in 1991; in October he was awarded a Nobel prize for this work, along with fellow chemists M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino.

Lithium-ion batteries work by combining a lithium oxide cathode (the positive electrode), an anode (the negative electrode) and an electrolyte (the separator) used as a conductor. When the battery is charged and discharged, ions move between the electrodes and create energy the battery can then use.

Just five companies in Japan, China, and South Korea produce 62% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries. Demand has grown significantly since 2015, when China began to aggressively push production of domestic electric vehicles (EVs), on top of continued global growth of smartphone, tablet, and laptop sales. China now manufactures 60% of the world’s EVs, and is attempting to secure control of lithium, an abundant natural mineral found in brine water and produced mostly in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. The Chinese company Tianqi Lithium last year paid $4 billion for a stake in the Chilean mining company Sociedad Química y Minera, effectively giving it control over half the global production of lithium. The industry Tianqi is focused on, the lithium-ion battery market, is forecast to increase in size from $33 billion in 2018 to more than $73 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights.

Yet despite the rapid surge in demand, lithium-ion batteries have major drawbacks, with a history of safety issues and a damning environmental record. Lithium-ion is an inherently unstable material that can explode when damaged or exposed to high heat. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, batteries caused 195 fires and explosions between 2009 and 2017, including the high profile problems experienced by the 2016 Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.

“We talk about electric vehicles saving the environment, but the batteries are not so good when it comes to recycling or disposing of the actual components themselves.”

Production of lithium is chemically intensive, and in South America, which produces the majority of the world’s lithium, extraction from salt flats uses vast amounts of water in one of the most arid parts of the world. The mining of cobalt, another mineral needed in battery production and one found almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is riddled with unsafe practices, including the use of child labor.

Furthermore, lithium-ion batteries are currently too expensive to recycle, which means they often end up in landfills. Americans dump around two billion lithium-ion batteries each year, although projects in Sweden and Japan are starting to upcycle electric car batteries, which can still hold 70% of their charge even after several years of use.

“We talk about electric vehicles saving the environment, but the batteries are not so good when it comes to recycling or disposing of the actual components themselves,” says Serena Corr, who holds the chair in functional nanomaterials at the University of Sheffield in Britain. “My research indicates there’s a need to develop recycling infrastructures as we look for new battery chemistries. We’re pushing forward with developing new batteries. We’re not really developing the reuse and recycling at the same time, which has to go hand in hand.”

Some researchers and technologists are trying to tackle these challenges, while others are working on the painfully slow developmental process of finding an alternative to lithium-ion. Ammonia, magnesium, and sodium are all in development at the moment and all have their drawbacks, including low power retention and volatility of the materials. Ideally, the battery of the future would use stable materials in a solid state to avoid potential fires or explosions.

“Two key battery technologies show practical promise for the electric vehicle industry over the next decade,” says Jarvis Tou, executive vice president of marketing and products at the Enevate Corporation, a lithium-ion battery company based in Irvine, California. Tou says he’s interested in the development of silicon-dominant anodes, an active material that can store lithium, and has a high electrical conductivity.

Another major development would be the reduction or removal of cobalt, which currently makes up about 20% of the cost of materials used in a typical lithium-ion battery. The price of cobalt has risen from $20,000 per metric ton in 2016 to about $80,000 today. Removing cobalt is key to bring down the cost of lithium-ion batteries; both Panasonic and Tesla have said they are working to remove cobalt from their batteries.

“Low-cobalt or no-cobalt cathode technologies can help continue to lower the cost of EV batteries for more affordable EVs and faster adoption, as cathodes continue to be the highest cost component within a lithium-ion cell today,” says Tou. “Silicon-dominant anode technologies can offer very fast charge capabilities along with high energy densities and safety benefits.”

Research teams have successfully explored using magnesium chromium oxide and gold nanowire electrodes to replace the cobalt that cathodes are typically made from, as well as “refillable” batteries which can have their electrolyte replenished. A roadside energy station of the future could conceivably refill your EV with new electrolyte when needed, removing the range anxiety that is currently a major issue for today’s lithium-ion battery vehicles.

Bill Ray, the senior director of semiconductors and electronics at the research firm Gartner, says that copper foam could replace lithium-ion in as little as five years, and is close to production. “They have a larger anode, which means they can be charged very quickly, which is of course what consumers want.”

Several researchers, including Ford, are developing solid-state batteries, which work by replacing the liquid electrolyte separator with a solid material. A range of possible materials is being researched including new crystal materials, LTPS, a hydride lithium superionic conductor, and a ceramic electrolyte.

Using solid materials could produce a higher capacity battery with less risk of fire or explosion, though these are some distance from mainstream production. The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, and the University of Geneva, have also created a new battery prototype known as “all-solid-state.” This battery has the potential to be more efficient than lithium-ion, have larger capacities, and offer high levels of safety.

“If you can perfect reliable wireless charging over say a meter, then the battery technology itself becomes far less important.”

“Even though there are first trials underway with solid-state battery systems, solid-state technology currently has disadvantages in terms of both technology and price,” says Sven Schulz, CEO of German high-performance battery firm AKASOL. He expects solid-state batteries to enter the market around 2030, though he believes that lithium-ion batteries will remain the best option for at least the next 10 years. “While the development of lithium-ion technology is not a revolutionary process, step-by-step it is improving by 2%–5% annually. Sticking with this technology until a new disruptive technology comes along is the right thing to do.”

Longer-term, some technologists have a very different vision of the future of battery power. Ray says that wireless or internal induction charging, via a pad in your garage, street, or city parking lot, is expected to become commonplace. “At the moment, wireless charging isn’t really any better than charging with a cable,” he says. “If you can perfect reliable wireless charging over say a meter, then the battery technology itself becomes far less important. Your device is continually sipping on the charge.”

Some in the energy industry predict that domestic energy storage, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, will become standard. The units contain rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that can store 13.5 kWh electricity, enough to power an average-sized home for one day. Demand is likely to grow as more homes are fitted with solar panels and wind turbines, and need to store that energy.

As our reliance on all these types of battery increases, so will the commercial incentive for exploring new, more reliable, and more efficient solutions. “We need expertise in chemistry, physics, engineering and material science to come together,” says Corr. “It’s vital that we have a hugely collaborative wave addressing the challenges of developing new battery technologies.”

David Howell is Nexus Publishing, a specialist technology and business journalist.

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