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Why We’re Stuck with Lithium-ion Batteries (Maybe Forever)

February 06, 2019 by Sam Holland

Lithium-ion batteries not only mark the present—they may well be the future, too. Consumer demand, especially in the EV industry, is both pressuring and incentivising manufacturers such as Tesla to keep the power supplies alive and kicking for the foreseeable future.

Yet, particularly with today’s everyday applications, Li-ion has its limitations in efficiency: after prolonged use, consumer devices may overheat (sometimes to the point of combustion), and within two to three years their charging efficiency may hit a brick wall altogether.


It’s in the Chemistry

Although the former fault poses dangers to the unfortunate few, the second one will be experienced by all consumers of LIBs, and it is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues when it comes to the question of whether Li-ion cells—namely their diminishing capacity—will stand the test of time.

LIBs, nevertheless, do at least start life in a fit state to manage their device’s power demands, thanks to the battery chemistry itself. The chemistry facilitates an effective charging process. Simply put, when charging, Li-ion cells force their ions (atoms holding an electric charge) from the device’s negative electrode, the cathode, onto its positive counterpart, the anode.

Over time though, not only does the cathode’s capacity weaken with use, the ions themselves eventually lose their efficiency, too. Ohio State University research even concludes that such atoms themselves eventually diminish from the cathode and remain static in the anode, leading to a reduced flow both charging and discharging-wise.


A lithium-ion battery. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Yet it is both because—and in spite of—such battery chemistry that LIBs lead the way in rechargeable technology. Li-ion may not ever be fully renewable due to its ever-diminishing cathodes, but, in the two to three years before the average LIB dies, it offers more power reliability than its competitors (including nickel-cadmium, aka NiCd, batteries).

This is as the latter lose their charge through a more problematic and immediate issue, the infamous 'memory effect' (more accurately described as 'voltage depression'), whereas Li-ion does not show such signs of voltage depression until the later stages of its life.


Why Li-ion Isn’t Going Anywhere

Ultimately, Li-ion batteries are ‘the best of a bad bunch’. After all, if a competing power source could offer the same qualities as LIBs and not show the same signs of degradation, it would have led the market long before Li-ion reached such an established status.

IHS Markit’s senior economist K. C. Chang, a specialist in metal commodities, sets our expectations to this effect:

"It has taken more than 50 years to develop lithium-ion batteries to the point that they are now at, so don't expect any of these early-stage technologies [such as calcium and magnesium-based chemistries] to hit the market anytime soon."

All in all, experts agree that LIBs have a long way to go before they are fully developed, but a lack of investable alternatives, plus Li-ion’s said longevity, suggest that the only way is up.

That is, for as long as the lithium production demands can be met.


Just How Much Lithium is There?

For Li-ion, the question of its sustainability extends—not only to the technological level—but the supply chain level, too. Market reporters Roskill claim that 2019 alone will see a potential 13.5% increase in the world’s lithium requirements, and it will not stop growing from there.


The shorthand for lithium ('Li'), in accord with the periodic table. lmage courtesy of Flickr.


Those in the industry are of course already expressing major supply and demand concerns, and uncertain ones at that.

One authority, research organisation Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., predicts that lithium mining operations will need investments that total anywhere between $350 billion and $750 billion to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for Li-ion batteries. Additionally, addressing Tesla’s shortcomings in meeting consumer demands (for the Tesla Model 3), Elon Musk himself admits:

"Battery module production has been a limiting factor on ... output. We were a little overconfident and complacent in thinking this is something we know and understand."


The Verdict

Despite all the above concerns of reliability and production, if immortalising LIBs is possible, then it should by all means still happen. Consider the unstoppable growth of the EV industry alone: if meeting the Li-ion demands are within reach of manufacturers, they may have no choice but to do all in their power to continue its production.

In 2020, for instance, Tesla’s Nevada gigafactory is at the time of writing expected to be complete and will ramp the manufacturer’s EV production to 500,000 a year.


An electric vehicle's speedometer. Image courtesy of Pixabay.


Although it is currently impossible to know for sure how long it will be before the planet’s unknown amount of lithium runs out at the source, all in all, the interest and investments in the growing industry dictates that we are indeed stuck with Li-ion, both the good and the bad, for the foreseeable future.

And if no breakthrough competition stands in the way of its exponential growth, we can only hope that further funding, technological R&D, improved consumer recycling of lithium, and of course more efficient lithium mining operations all rise to the production demands. Only then can—and perhaps likely will—the Li-ion market survive throughout, not just our lifetimes, but into the indefinite future as well.

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