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Lithium-Ion, what is its secret?

July 11, 2017

Lithium Ion started in 1991 with a bold, some said foolish, introduction of a 1Ah 18650 cell by Sony. Over 25 years later it has sales of over $40 Billion and is found in just about every type of device imaginable. One could hardly accuse it of pushing its weight around but it quickly displaced NiMH in computers and then cellphones and as its power capability was improved it conquered power tools and today is giving corded electric a run for its money in garden power tools. False starts by Duracell & Energizer in the 1990’s gave way to the likes of A123 and Boston Power early in the 21st century that have now been trumped by Tesla. But where to from here? Technology? Costs? Applications? Safety? Here are four things to think about that will either make life interesting, or not depending on your perspective.


1.  Batteries are containers of stored chemical energy. As such they can never be called safe! They need to be treated with respect and because Lithium Ion can cram more energy into smaller spaces it has to be treated with that much more respect. Going forward lithium ion in general has three problems that will interrupt its progress but will not stop it. Early problems with lead acid were communicated with the speed of the pony express but when there is a lithium Ion incident it will be communicated with the speed of the internet. Secondly, while the big guys will drive towards sub parts per billion defect levels there will always be smaller companies that cannot achieve such quality levels. Thirdly, just like extreme sports the desire to win will drive manufacturers to push product designs to the limits and to take risks.  Lead Acid did this with 6 mil separator and lithium ion with the 6 micron separator. In the blink of an eye a company’s perfect run can be ruined.


2.  Treacle pudding is treacle pudding & lead acid is lead acid. That is the chemistry is fixed and although there may be flooded, gel and AGM, the active materials do not change. In contrast Lithium Ion is like ice cream in this regard, because like Ice cream there are many flavors.



So we have Cobalt Oxide, Manganese dioxide, Iron phosphate, NMC & Aluminum based cathodes. We have graphite or carbon anodes, titanate anodes, tin anodes and silicon anodes. Each active material or combination produces a cell that will have a series of characteristics that are a complex trade off of properties or attributes. Power, Energy, cycle life, temperature performance, safety, charge acceptance, efficiency etc let alone cost will be in a balance and product designers will have to be increasingly cognizant of the balancing act required to deliver the most competitive product.


3.  One of the errors that has been made and will continue to be made with all battery chemistries is poor understanding of the supply chain and its affect not just on security of supply but on long term cost trends for key battery material commodities. While cobalt cathodes have given way to mixed metal cathodes the increased volumes of lithium ion being manufactured have resulted nevertheless in increases in the overall demand for Cobalt. Consider therefore:


• The demand for Cobalt increased by 79% from 2009 to 2014.

• The Price of Cobalt has more than doubled over the past six months

• Over half of the World’s Cobalt comes from the DRC

• ranks the DRC, 137th out of 194 in terms of political stability.

• The population of the DRC is 56 million and the GDP per person is only $800


How these factors come together to shape the future of Lithium Ion is uncertain and of course that is the point. Unlike other battery commodities such as Titanium, Nickel, Iron and even Lithium the security of Cobalt supply must be treated as high risk and no long-term materials strategy should entertain it.


4.  Lithium Ion may have many defining characteristics but it was its high energy density, both gravimetric & volumetric, that drove its early success and if the future success of Lithium Ion was driven by these attributes in new applications its future growth would be assured for many decades. This may be the case for vehicle applications where the weight advantage of Lithium Ion is unlikely to be rivalled but for many Industrial applications this advantage does not count for much and can even be a disadvantage. This reality along with some of the advantages of alternative Energy Storage chemistries gives them a good chance of enjoying business penetration between the Lithium Ion and Lead Acid incumbents. For example both Vanadium Redox flow and Nickel Iron confidently boast 10,000 cycles and 20 years operation. These attributes at the right cost will beat the Lithium Ion option. In light of this consideration Lithium Ion must focus on several other areas where it can claim superiority. This varies somewhat by the flavor but charge acceptance and overall round trip efficiency tend to be strengths that can be leveraged. There was not sufficient motivation when Lithium Ion was up in the $400/kWh range but now with it knocking on the door of $200/kWh these attributes may win the day.


In conclusion when it comes to Lithium Ion these are the takeaways from this short discussion.

  • The perception of Lithium Ion as being so unsafe may not be the reality but instant global wifi communication will continue to reinforce that perception.

  • Lithium Ion comes in many flavors. Each one is unique and comes with its own good and not so good characteristics.

  • Understanding Lithium Ion supply chain, and in particular commodities, is critical to being successful.

  • To win with some of the newer applications Lithium Ion will have to flaunt different characteristics than it has in the past.


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