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015 / Batteries

By Khaled Abou Alfa • Published November 2019

As a child of the 80s & 90s, I grew up on a healthy diet of Japanese animation. One of the shows that I remember capturing my imagination was the series Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The show would always start with a brief introduction recapping the premise of the show. As you would expect it was thoroughly ludicrous, save for one element. 27 years later I didn’t even need to resort to Wikipedia, I still remember the name, the Shizuma drive. A tiny glowing cylinder that ushered with it unlimited power and the third energy revolution.

I came for the fighting robots, what stuck with me was the faux-science. The concept of a magical device that could solve the world’s energy problems was particularly intoxicating. This fascination was likely a product of a child’s empathy towards those suffering in wars that were raging at the time in the Middle East. Wars and conflicts that have always been about the control of energy. All these years later, these wars have proliferated and continue to touch the lives of millions more. A transformative solution would be the only way to disrupt our dependence to black gold.

We didn’t get that, instead we got the Lithium-ion battery. A technology that has changed many of the ways we go about our daily lives. One that has enabled the storage of energy in ever smaller packages. A versatile solution used to power a wide range of tools, vehicles and buildings. Sadly it is does not provide an infinite source of energy nor is it self replenishing. While this technology has seen significant advances over the last 25 years, batteries are going to have to make significant leaps over the coming years. Without these advances we will struggle to come even close to meeting the requirements set out in the Paris Agreement (see issue 009). It’s no longer about your mobile phone, camera or even electric vehicle. Its’s about mass transportation and grid storage. It’s about anything that needs electrical energy.

Lithium and Cobalt

The history of the Lithium ion (Li-ion) battery dates back to the early 1970s. Over a decade and a half, a wide range of scientists refined and developed the technology until it began commercial life in the early 1990s. The Nickel-Cadmium (NiCD) batteries of the time were clunky, heavy and would not have allowed the lifestyle we take for granted today. We cannot understate the importance of this technology, which unlike other technologies, was and remains a viable one. In recognition of the battery’s importance, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for their contributions.

As is the case with many widely adopted technologies, economies of scale will drive the cost of entry down. Over the last 10 years the cost of Li-ion batteries has dropped year on year to a 10th of its original price.

Lithium-ion battery survey results: average price for both call and packs
Source: BloombergNEF

Our hunger for this type of battery has increased, fueled by a nascent electric vehicles (EV) industry. Adoption remains low and hasn’t reached critical levels. Yet the seams are starting to appear on the system in place for delivering a more sustainable’ way of life. Inherent in any system designed to be convenient for some, will be inconvenient for others.

The need for the raw materials will continue to increase as the electrification of more of our transportation continues. The two main material that define the cost of Li-ion battery are lithium and cobalt. From a recently published McKinsey report:

…the growing adoption of EVs and need for EV batteries with higher energy densities will see the demand for lithium increase more than threefold from 214 kt to 669 kt LCE1 between 2017 and 2025, whereas cobalt will increase by 60 percent from 136 kt to 222 kt over the same period in McKinsey’s base case outlook.

While the supply of lithium does present its own challenges the current over supply indicates that the raw materials are currently under control1. The scarcity of cobalt however presents a considerably more acute set of issues. The first issue concerns the global availability of the material. 65-70% (the number varies depending on the source) of the world’s cobalt reserves come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other three main producers account for just 13% of the supply.

The second issue concerns the industry around the production. Artisanal mining and child labour, present a solution that has issues of first morality, followed by scaleability, before even considering sustainablility. In response to these uncertainties, manufacturers have positively resorted to recycling the materials. However the practice isn’t comprehensive, as these initiatives are borne of market nervousness rather than altruism.

If major flaws in the supply chain are evident at this stage, what manner of madness have we left ourselves exposed to when our needs reach mass adoption? Will the system break when we try and move towards off-grid networks? Is the complete electrification of large transportation networks and vehicles even possible?

Modern Day Alchemy

For our world to move to a more sustainable future, our dependence needs to also move to more readily available materials. This of course is easier said than done. The hunt for better battery technology has been the obsessive focus of many scientists and technology companies. In many regards, this hunt is the modern day equivalent of medieval alchemy. For those listening, announcements are made regularly of breakthrough efforts and technology that could one day hope to replace the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery. Amid all the hype there is some cause for cautious optimism2. While transitioning into commercial production takes a long time, oftentimes decades, as the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is fire’. Objectively, there is considerable smoke from a wide range of credible sources.

The newly minted Nobel laureate, John Goodenough has published research for a new glass battery. This proposal not only doubles the capacity of existing Li-ion batteries, replaces lithium with sodium but crucially it is non-flammable. This means that some of the infrastructure necessary within fuel cells can be removed, making the batteries lighter. the intention is to be available in the market by 2022, which is a tad more aggressive (optimistic) than the timeline for the original Li-ion battery.

Meanwhile Jeff Dahn, one of the world’s most prominent Li-ion researchers, has published a paper that provides detailed information about a new formulation3. The battery will not only power an EV for over 1 million miles, but will only loose 10% of it’s capacity during it’s lifetime. Dahn’s Dalhousie research group is under contract for Tesla which is leading speculation that they have something even more impressive to release.

In a recently published interview, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun and co-inventor of Java) has invested in Ionic Materials. At the heart of the company’s battery innovation is a plastic fire retardant polymer that will remove the need for liquid in a battery. The polymer would allow a wide variety of materials to be used, that previously could not be considered.

Finally, in the maybe-to-good-to-be-true category is Trevor Jackson. Jackson has been developing his aluminium-air battery for the better part of a decade. He is proposing a new electrolyte that is capable of extracting power from lower grade aluminium. The batteries can last for significantly longer periods compared with Li-ion batteries. While recycling of these batteries would not be as cumbersome.

Expecting every one of these innovations to reach the market, is unrealistic. Rather, the commercialisation of any one of these could make a significant impact on the world around us. It feels as though we are on the precipice of a breakthrough. One that will transform our cities, homes and lives in a manner not experienced since the advent of refrigeration. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.

  1. When measured relative to Cobalt extraction. Lithium production is limited to 8 countries, 3 of which (Chile, Australia and China) account for 85% of the production.↩︎

  2. Something we will be monitoring and commenting on in future issues as (or even if) information is released.↩︎

  3. A paper which should win the award for Best Title in a Scientific Paper’ category: A Wide Range of Testing Results on an Excellent Lithium-Ion Cell Chemistry to be used as Benchmarks for New Battery Technologies’.↩︎