Lithium batteries: blues and breakthroughs

Posted on 4 Jan 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

Lithium-ion batteries have grown to become one of the key technologies underpinning modern consumer electronics.

Devices as small as a smartphone, all the way up top large battery-electric trucks, all make critical use of these batteries. However, their explosive growth has also lead to a number of problems, related both to their design and materials.

Mineral malaise

One key issue limiting the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries is the availability of the minerals they use within. The most obvious of these is lithium, a light, and highly reactive metal used in great quantities by the battery-manufacturing industry.

Global lithium production has been traditionally confined to South America, where three countries – Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina – account for approximately 75% of the total global production. While these countries do hold large unexploited lithium deposits, there has so-far been little interest in developing them, leading to a recent spike in lithium prices.

Perhaps more concerning than lithium, however, is the use of another metal, cobalt, within many of these batteries. Cobalt production is even more centralised than that of lithium, with more than 65% of all global production stemming from a single country – the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed, a single mine within the DRC, Mukondo Mountain, produces around a third of all the world’s cobalt.

Beyond the simple fact that cobalt production is centralised in one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, concerns have been raised about more specific issues. Global cobalt production has been rising steeply in recent years – and this has turned artisanal cobalt mining into a profitable activity in parts of Central Africa. A recent report by Amnesty International defined cobalt as a potential conflict mineral and alleged that significant amounts of the mineral are often mined by child labour.

Another geopolitical concern regarding cobalt is that cobalt mining and refining is almost completely controlled by just a handful of Chinese companies. In the face of tightening supply, or indeed an increase in trade isolationism, Western manufacturers could easily find this critical mineral in short supply. Into the future, the demand for these minerals is expected to soar, especially as companies such as Tesla begin to produce electric vehicles (and lithium-ion batteries) en masse.

Alternative technologies

As demand for lithium and cobalt grows, so will their prices. Even if new mines are opened, the initial investment this requires will be folded into higher prices per ton. In an effort to avoid the problems this might cause, and indeed improve overall battery performance, researchers are working around the world on new and improved battery designs, with radical new approaches to their chemistry.

Among the more promising of these technologies are so-called lithium-air batteries. Lithium-air batteries forgo metallic cathodes, and in their place make use of oxygen molecules in the air to fill this role. While the technology is still only in a developmental stage, these batteries could theoretically deliver massive improvements in energy density over existing lithium-ion designs.

Storing five times more energy than currently possible, these batteries would require vastly less lithium per unit of energy delivered, and thus would go some way to alleviating supply and price bottlenecks.

Beyond lithium, another potential battery breakthrough could come in the form of graphene. For the first time ever last year, China showed off an experimental battery using the newly discovered form of carbon within its structure. Again, despite ‘graphene batteries’ still likely implementing lithium into their designs, they could offer large efficiency gains, which would reduce overall demand.

Nonetheless, the development of such batteries is still several years away, with many key hurdles yet to be overcome before they can be commercially viable. With this in mind, it would seem that the battery business will become more competitive and cut-throat, as new demand is set to soar long before a technological solution is widely available.