In cars, the trick is to produce a battery that is powerful, light and long range © Bloomberg/Getty Images
In cars, the trick is to produce a battery that is powerful, light and long range © Bloomberg/Getty Images

Tech briefing: the lure of lithium-ion batteries

While our search goes on for the Holy Grail (a lithium-ion battery with a long life and slow discharge rate) reliance on this technology is growing.

First commercialised by Sony in the early 1990s for video cameras, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are literally taking over the world. Now they’re in everything from our smartphones and tablets to toothbrushes, shavers and earphones. The cost of production has dropped 85% in the last decade, to $156 per kilowatt-hour, with expectations it will fall further, to below the magic $100/kWh by 2024.

Growth is being fuelled most significantly by automobile production. Already, car manufacture accounts for 64% of all lithium battery consumption, and while total numbers of battery-powered electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles only broke the five million mark in 2018, according to BloombergNEF, 57% of all new passenger car sales will be electric by 2040. This is thanks, in part, to national governments phasing out petrol engines.

Environmental concerns

Lithium-ion batteries are seen as the vital component to transition power usage away from fossil fuels. Notwithstanding arguments that mining lithium and cobalt – its two principal ingredients – is just as environmentally damaging, the direction of travel has been set. The battery industry already accounts for the majority of global cobalt demand (with $60bn of investments in new battery factories being made in 2019 alone), and this is predicted to grow further, as car makers in particular strive to pack more capacity – ie mileage potential – into their new vehicles. Global demand for cobalt is predicted to hit 300,000 tonnes per year by 2029, against the 70,000 tonnes used in 2019. Ford alone has a $11bn plan to develop 40 all-electric and hybrid models by 2022, while Volkswagen has increased its electric vehicle goal to 70 new models by 2028, up from an initial target of 50.

Supply chain implications

The growing worry seems to be how to solve the conundrum of creating mass storage. As growth in renewable energy increases, the battle is on to upscale battery production to units big enough for the home, as well as those at industrial sizes, to better store and release energy.

Anything else on the horizon?

Just to complicate matters, yes. Lithium-ion batteries are so-called ‘wet’ batteries, using liquid electrolytes to move energy around. Attention is now turning to cells that are ‘dry’ and made of solid conductive material. They are less likely to catch fire, and charge faster (the current drawback).

In 2018, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Panasonic teamed up, with a specific focus on developing solid-state batteries. The technology is expected to reach the mass market by 2030. 

Bye-bye, petrol

The UK Government has recently announced bringing forward a ban on selling new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars in the UK from 2040 to 2035. While environmentalists have rejoiced through gritted teeth (they don’t think it comes soon enough), others argue car range needs to rise significantly – to 350-500 miles (with much faster charging), before consumers fully embrace the lure of electric.

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