Advanced Materials Will Transform the Lithium Battery Market
Rechargeable lithium ion batteries power almost all our electronic needs, ranging from portable devices such as watches and cell phones to larger-scale equipment like electric vehicles.
According to recent market research, the lithium ion battery market is estimated to grow from $44 billion in 2020 to $94.4 billion by 2025—a compound annual growth rate of 16.4%.
As popular as they are, lithium ion batteries do have significant limitations. Storage capacity and energy density are still limited—cell phones typically last only a day and electric cars cannot go much beyond 300 miles on a single charge.
New Materials, Better Batteries
To meet consumer demands, researchers are working to improve the safety, efficiency, and storage capacity of rechargeable lithium ion batteries, largely by developing new materials for the electrodes and the electrolyte, the solution that carries the lithium ions back and forth between the electrodes, creating electricity.
Major material developments include:
- Lithium-sulfur batteries. Scientists at Monash University in Australia have developed a lithium-sulfur battery with the potential to double the range of an electric vehicle or power a cell phone for up to five days, on a single charge, compared to standard lithium ion batteries. “Such batteries are extremely low-cost to manufacture, using water-based processes, and can lead to significant reductions in environmentally hazardous waste,” states lead researcher Matthew Hill.
- Lithium-silicon batteries. This alternative type of lithium ion battery uses silicon for the anode, instead of graphite, boosting battery performance by up to 40% compared to standard lithium ion batteries. Silanano is a technology start-up company that is commercializing this product, with significant investment from major automotive companies such as BMW.
- Carbon-based electrodes. York University researchers have created a new carbon-based organic molecule that can replace cobalt in the cathodes of lithium ion batteries, without sacrificing performance, stability, and storage capacity. “Organic electrode materials are extremely promising materials for sustainable batteries with high power capabilities,” says York University researcher Thomas Baumgartner.
- Manganese-titanium electrodes. Engineers at Yokohama National University have developed a new electrode material that boosts the performance of lithium ion batteries. A mixture of lithium, oxygen, manganese, and titanium nanoparticles allows the battery to disperse more charge over a longer time period. “Titanium and manganese are also abundant elements, meaning we can make cost-effective lithium batteries, without nickel and cobalt ions,” says researcher Naoaki Yabuuchi.
- Aqueous batteries. These batteries contain water-based electrolytes that are nonflammable and nontoxic, but historically have been unable to hold enough charge to be effective. However, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have created a lithium salt-polymer electrolyte that can triple the electric potential of aqueous batteries from around 1.2 volts to 4 volts, which is comparable with commercial lithium ion batteries. Because these batteries are also flexible and highly durable, they could be incorporated into fabrics or wearable electronics.
Moving Beyond Lithium
Researchers believe that traditional lithium ion battery technology is nearing its limits in terms of energy density and storage capacity. Scientists are working to improve existing batteries by creating new lithium composite chemistries, as well as methods for improving storage capacity and speed. For example, scientists at WMG at the University of Warwick have developed a new process that allows current lithium ion batteries to be charged up to five times faster by monitoring battery temperature.
However, even if charge rates are vastly improved, lithium ion batteries do have other drawbacks. For example, they rely on flammable materials that, if damaged or defective, can catch fire or explode. Lithium ion batteries also use heavy metals that are toxic and hazardous to the environment. Supplies of cobalt, a preferred cathode material, are dwindling as manufacturing demands outpace mineral production. The majority of cobalt is also produced in less-stable countries, creating supply chain risks as well.
Therefore, battery specialists are also developing new chemistries and nanostructures for batteries that do not involve lithium at all. For example, solid-state batteries or metal batteries have great promise, but are prone to the accumulation of metal deposits, called dendrites, on the anode, which create safety and performance issues. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers have discovered a way to overcome dendrite formation to create a metal battery that performs nearly as well as a lithium ion battery but relies on potassium—a much more abundant and less expensive element.
“I would love to see a paradigm shift to metal batteries,” states professor and lead researcher Nikhil Koratkar. “Metal batteries are the most efficient way to construct a battery; however, because of this dendrite problem they have not been feasible. With potassium, I am much more hopeful.”
These and other R&D advancements will help meet both industrial and consumer demands for more powerful, longer-lasting, and safer next-generation batteries to power our energy needs in the future. For example, improved battery power and storage capacity in manufacturing facilities can limit the need for fossil fuel sources, improve equipment/automation efficiency and worker safety, and reduce overall operational costs—making companies more competitive in the global economy.