A Dose of Lithium

For those who want an overview of the current state of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery sector, the fall 2012 issue of Batteries International is just the thing.

It’s not a pretty picture that’s painted.  Beyond the well-publicized bankruptcies of A123 and Ener1, the general sentiment espoused is that players in the Li-ion sector face tough days ahead.  The technology is not improving rapidly enough, its costs are not coming down fast enough, and markets for its adoption are not growing as robustly as expected.  Meanwhile, too much capital has been invested in too much manufacturing capacity.  Inevitably, one must conclude that further shakeout is ahead.

The most data-laden article in the issue concerns the prospects for Li-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs).  In “The Battery Revolution That Stalled”, author Lynnda Greene summarizes four recent research reports – from McKinsey & Company, Pike Research, Lux Research, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance – that all provide projections for a long and slow (rather than short and steep) glide path of cost declines.  For EVs to make good economic sense, it is generally held that batteries need to be in the $150/kWh range.  It had been hoped that Li-ion would reach those levels by 2020, fed in part by the considerable funding frenzy the Li-ion sector received from private investors and government subsidies in recent years.  Alas, the shared perspective of the four research reports is that those cost levels won’t be achieved for well more than a decade, and perhaps two.

The near-term prospects for Li-ion in grid-scale power storage are not much more promising.  This is partly also because of costs, but also because of reliability – some of the Li-ion grid-scale test programs have resulted in fires, and risk-averse utilities are not keen on adopting a technology until it’s been thoroughly proven to work well under almost every conceivable set of conditions.

The challenges facing Li-ion cause some observers to wonder whether too much attention is being paid to Li-ion and not enough on other battery chemistries – including the old-fashioned lead-acid battery extensively used over the past century.  Some of the commentators that Battery International quoted are more subdued in their criticisms, offering modest glimmers of optimism here and there.  But, the inescapable sense from the issue in its totality is that li-ion won’t see happy days for quite awhile – if ever.

In a lengthy profile of his views, battery blogger John Petersen compares lithium-ion batteries to centerfold models:  “They’re glamorous, sleek, sexy and hot; the building blocks of pubescent dreams and mid-life crises.  But they’re expensive, temperamental, potentially dangerous and scarce.”  As several pages more of his analysis and quips indicate, Petersen is very pessimistic about li-ion – and about EVs in general, for that matter.  He thinks that the case for EVs based on li-ion technology has consistently been oversold, and never had the chance of achieving the naïve promises that were made.

MIT Professor Donald Sadoway may sum up the long-term fate of li-ion best:  ”It shocks me that 99% of the active battery community is working on lithium-ion improvements.  We’re not getting there though.  It’s like looking for your car keys underneath the street lamp because that where the light is shining.  But you didn’t drop your car keys there!  What’s next is beyond lithium; in fact, it’s a lithium-free chemistry, which has to date received almost no attention.”

It used to be that “lithium” was known primarily as a treatment for depression.  For those in the cleantech sector, lithium may be coming to be known better as a cause of depression.

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  1. […] For those who want an overview of the current state of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery sector, the fall 2012 issue of Batteries International is just the thing. It’s not a pretty picture that’s painted.  Beyond the well-publicized bankruptcies of A123 and Ener1, the general sentiment espoused is that players in the Li-ion sector face tough […] Cleantech Blog […]

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