Battery Chemistry Review – Can lithium continue to dominate?
Although the technology was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, the first lithium batteries didn’t make it to market until the 70s, and it was a series of breakthroughs in the early 80s that cemented it as the market leading product it is today.
Lithium (and cobalt / graphite / nickel / manganese) cells replaced lead acid as the foremost battery chemistry simply because lithium has the lightest weight, highest voltage, and greatest energy density of all metals (why is a bubble round?); nevertheless, its relative scarcity and recent price escalation has some manufacturers shopping for alternatives.
The expansion of energy storage capacity is undoubtedly a societal necessity for the foreseeable future, but with extensive R&D in this area being a constant force for change, there is no reason to expect a single type of device to dominate the market indefinitely.
On March 7th, researchers at RMIT University in Australia announced that they had cracked a new type of battery chemistry that they have termed the “Proton Battery”, which rivals the current lithium-ion setup even before optimization.
The working prototype uses a carbon-based electrode to store hydrogen, coupled with a reversible fuel cell to produce electricity. The carbon in the electrode bonds with protons generated when charging by splitting water assisted by electrons from the power supply.
The protons are then released to pass back through the reversible fuel cell forming H2O with oxygen from the air to generate power. Lead researcher, Professor John Andrews, says it is the carbon electrode plus the protons from water that give this particular battery its environmental, technological and economic edge.
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Investors shouldn’t worry just yet, however, as lithium chemistries should still be in common use for a considerable while. Colossal funding has been ploughed into the sector and long-term promises have already been made, breeding significant interest in its continued growth, but furthermore, there is always a monumental delay between the discovery of a technology and its rollout.
Vanadium redox flow batteries, for instance, were first explored in the 1930s but only successfully demonstrated five decades later, and these are still struggling to find their niche today. Personally, I expect these industrial-scale devices will be most suited to isolated communities such as agricultural districts as their liquid electrolyte makes them entirely unsuitable for any mobile applications.
It would be beyond the scope of this post to precisely count the number of new battery technologies demonstrated in recent decades, but it’s worth noting that some leading contenders continue to rely on lithium, such as the solid state battery touted by Dyson, Toyota et al.
In January, the UK granted £42m in government funding to the development of solid state battery technologies in a bid to compete with Asia-Pacific nations. The government’s newly-launched Faraday Institution said the research will be led by Oxford university, but a total of £246m will be invested into battery technology under its new industrial strategy.
Many materials have been proposed for use as solid electrolytes in solid-state batteries, including ceramics, glass, magnesium and sodium, so how long does lithium have? There’s no way to say for sure, but the investments in lithium technologies made by the largest battery and vehicle manufacturers suggest that it may even have decades left.
The better question, then, would be one of market share. Each chemistry is very much suited to a particular application or group of applications, and as more of these newer chemistries are successfully demonstrated, each segment is likely to adopt the solution that represents the most economical construction possible; exactly why a bubble is round.
So to all you lithium and cobalt hopefuls: Don’t forget that, while batteries are definitely here to stay in one form or another, this planet is a place of constant and massive change. We do currently have the best available tool for the job, but neither of these things have ever been static.