Where Are Lithium-Ion Batteries Going?

Spending time at the wheel of many electric and hybrid cars in the last few months got us wondering where lithium-ion batteries are headed. Our research led us to some noteworthy finds.

There is a consensus: lithium-ion is the winning type of rechargeable battery for this decade. IDTechEx counted about 150 manufacturers of these and expects to see 200 manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries soon, mainly because of the burgeoning number of Chinese companies making poor quality me-too-but-cheaper versions.

Everyone also agrees that traction batteries for electric vehicles – hybrid and pure electric – will be the major market for lithium-ion batteries over the coming decade. It is also expected that electric vehicles will dominate the use of this type of batteries in later years by a big margin.

One well balanced article that summed up very well our other findings was written by Dr. Peter Harrop, the Founder and Chairman of IDTechEx.

The following paragraphs represent some of the key points Harrop made:

Dr. Harrop says IDTechEx projects a market for traction batteries in land and water vehicles plus aircraft of just under $60 billion in 2020 of which about 60 percent will be lithium-ion. IDTechEx also expects 80 percent of those will be made by just four winning lithium-ion manufacturers.

An important element to consider in order to understand the scale of the market is the fact that electric vehicles need the equivalent of thousands to tens of thousands of mobile phone batteries per vehicle.

The disagreement amongst the battery community comes with just about everything else concerning lithium-ion batteries.

The chemistry front is the big question mark – and also where the solution likely rests; both the cathode and the anode need improvements.

There is lithium iron phosphate used for active cathodes because of advantages such as no materials subject to severe price hikes, low cost materials and easier patent position.

Batteries conceived this way have good temperature performance that can reflect in greater safety, though no lithium-ion cell is inherently safe and the first defender of safety is the Battery Management System BMS, not the cell.

On the anode side, today’s batteries have little more than copper foil coated with carbon such as graphite. Disagreement reigns on how to improve this aspect. EnerDel, Altairnano and Toshiba have taken the lithium titanate route said to improve power density for fast regenerative braking and fast chargers at the roadside or bus depot.

Other organizations are now looking at silicon-based anodes. It is argued that silicon can increase cycle life and even that vital energy density but does vanadium need to be involved? Nanotechnology? Graphene? Struggling for any agreement here, Dr Harrop can only say that most experts believe that the cleverer anode will cost more than its typically 14 percent of cost reported today; but it will never cost as much as the cathode, with 35 percent of the total spend.

It is clear that the main frontier of lithium-ion success is achieving affordably greater energy density, which will translate into greater range for the vehicle’s end user.

It is stating the obvious to say that there will be a huge take-off in sales when most people think the range of an affordable pure electric car is adequate. But what is adequate?

Any improvement will create a significant rise in sales, but no one knows or agrees on what this tipping point may be.

We can only agree with Harrop when he states that “nobody knows that figure for widely acceptable range partly because there is almost no statistical correlation between how people respond to questionnaires and what they then do.”

Alternatively, how far does the price of lithium-ion batteries need to fall for the electric vehicle to become viable on a large scale?

Analyst Pike Research puts that at about $523 per kilowatt hour by 2017… aren’t we there yet? The Nissan Leaf EV’s battery pack has been reported to cost only $375 per kilowatt hour. On Tesla Motors’ front, CEO Elon Musk said recently that battery costs may fall to less than $200 per kilowatt hour “in the not-too-distant future.”

On the other hand, success may go towards avoiding a battery. Supercapacitors and the half-way solution of the supercabattery (Asymmetric Electrochemical Double Layer Capacitor), notably the “lithium capacitor” which has one lithium-ion battery electrode, is being studied. The developers of these now outnumber the number of developers of rechargeable lithium/lithium metal batteries.

Harrop also points to the fact many of the giants spend more than half of their expenditure on electric vehicles that are not cars.

A good example being Toyota which is more than four times as big in electric vehicles as number two partly because it is world number one in pure electric and hybrid forklifts and near the top in hybrid electric buses.

As is often the case, success may come by ignoring trends and aiming for the best viable technology.

The full article by IDTechEx can be accessed here.

  • DC

    I can tell you where Li-on is going, back to lab, for a long as the auto-cartel can keep them there. The whole ‘purpose’ behind Li-on, is not to produce viable affordable ,EVs(debatable if that is even a good idea, considering the immense damage there gas-burning cousins have wrecked on the planet, and continue to), but li-ons real purpose is hinder and delay any move away from gas, or even so-called ‘hybrids’. Li-on is loved by the auto-oil cartel because it has all the attributes they look for in a battery. Complex, expensive(important point), fire-prone, long supply chains stretching around the planet.

    In short, the Li-on is designed not to work, not really. They dont mind if billions of discarded Ijunks and cell phones with faulty Li-ons end up clogging 3rd world waste dumps, poisoning peoples water and land, as long as we dont see it, there less enthusiastic about putting them in cars that dont require gas or oil. The real message though, is, ‘Its so-called ‘advanced’ li-on batteries, or nothing at all. Just wait a few more decades wihile we ‘work the kinks out’. This line of thought never mentions that perfectly viable battery chemistries have existed for decades, all capable of doing 100 years ago, what we are constantly being told Li-on is the only capable of doing…….


  • Van

    As I recall, the break through in battery technology, i.e. the Lithium Battery for vehicles, occurred during the Bush 43 administration. However, rather than promote it, money was diverted toward the “hydrogen economy” and so we had to wait for the Obama administration to double down on the technology.

    As far as batteries being available before say Bush 43, lets see, we had the Lead/Acid 35Wh/kg chemistry, the NIMH 65Wh/kg chemistry, and not much else for the GM EV1. Now we have several versions of the Lithium battery at are rated @ 90Wh/kg to 120Wh/kg. And we have seen claims the NMC lithium battery will provide 180 Wh/kg, for the 2015 Model year Leaf. Time will tell.

    But I agree with DC, the first generation EV’s with about 70 miles of EV range seem “designed” to fail. However, if and when the NMC chemistry or something else (they are working on many fronts) comes in with an affordable 140 mile range EV, they will displace the gas guzzlers IMHO, both as stand alone EV’s and as plug-in hybrids with over 25 miles of EV range..

  • CharlesF

    @Van, the first Li ion battery in a car predates Bush 43 by a couple of years. In December of 1997 Nissan introduced the Altra.

  • DrP

    The comments so far expressed seem very negative about many aspects of lithium batteries without any factual data to support such opinions. The comments ignore what little data was contained in the article. Expressing opinions not based on facts may be satisfying to those who need an outlet for their beliefs; however, such opinions offer little to an intellectually based argument. CAFE standards will most likely drive an increased use of hybrid-electric vehicles in the next decade. Therefore the use of more efficient batteries will also increase.

  • Van

    I always like it when folkss say Government regulation will improve the future. Fact – the soviet union produced misery.

    Yes, lithium batteries LiCo (Lithium Cobalt) existed in the 1990’s with very high energy and a rather low thermal runaway temperature. But the breakthrough battery Lithium Magnesium was created under Bush 43’s watch. They made about 200 Altra’s from 1999 to 2002, for fleet lease only, but elected not to produce because of problems with safety and cost.

    The Nissan Altra had about a 120 mile range provided not too many people were in it and you drove it fairly slow. It sported a 32 Kwh battery. The Leaf has about 24 Kwh, and even less range. Any EV needs about 42 Kwh of capacity so you can drive normally, with the heater or AC on and go 120 miles plus.

  • dutchinchicago

    And now that the hydrogen economy argument finally starts to run out their new smoke screen technology is natural gas.

  • Van

    Dutchinchicago, yes, spot on! Anything but the next generation lithium battery. Just run through the attacks in you mind, its toxic, its in short supply, it explodes, it catches fire, or in other words it is just as dangerous to the environment as gasoline and diesel. Twaddle.

  • billionlys

    Lithium battery for vehicles is not mature currently, here in China, BYD and some other relatively bigger companies are testing their batteries on TAXIs in Shenzhen, I heard that they test and replace battery cells every week, one engineer takes care of one TAXI just to keep it in good condition and get more experiment data to improve the battery. Besides BYD, there are many other companies supplying batteries for E-buses in China, it seems they are going more smooth than BYD, that is because E-buses need less rate power than electric car, and E-buses could endure more weight than E-car do, so more capacity and less rate power of battery cell.
    As to Hybrid area, Honda is using lithium battery on its new hybrid car, but in the near future, Ni-Mh will still dominate the market for the better function in high rate power than lithium battery.