Batteries: technological trends

Batteries are critical helpers of many other technologies. They are an integral part of the modern mobile lifestyle and mass production of electric vehicles (EVs). Batteries and energy storage technologies will be key to the transition to renewable energy.

The following are the main technological trends affecting the topic of batteries, as identified by GlobalData.

The lithium era

Thanks to the incomparable combination of lithium (Li) of lightness and high energy density, Li-based batteries will dominate the sector for the foreseeable future. Recent advances in the energy density of lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries mean that LFP technology will increasingly compete with lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and stationary storage applications. Tesla and BYD, among others, base some EV models on LFP batteries.

Meanwhile, Li-based batteries are eroding in the short term the prospects for lead-acid batteries, which are much larger and heavier, emit hazardous gases and have a lower energy density in stationary storage and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) applications. In addition, over the next decade, the primary market for lead acid in starting, lighting and ignition (SLI) systems for vehicles and hybrids with an internal combustion engine (ICE) will be increasingly eroded.

Battery materials

The cathodes, electrolytes and anodes of the batteries are made of cobalt (Co), nickel (Ni), flammable liquids, graphite, manganese (Mn) and Li. Under the pressure of rising costs, affordability and productivity, in particular safety pressures, demand among cell manufacturers and their component suppliers is increasing for increasingly efficient materials and chemical mixtures.

Over the next two to three years, Ni will increasingly be replaced by Co as a cathodic stabilizer to break dependence on expensive supplies from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), although Ni is not easy to extract and purify. In addition, there will be increasing efforts to replace flammable liquid electrolytes with ceramic, glass, polymer or, ideally, silicon electrolytes working in tandem with silicon or lithium metal modified anodes.

The silicon and graphene revolution

Silicon, along with graphene, is the preferred solid material of the future. Silicon atoms can theoretically store about 20 times more lithium than carbon atoms, which leads to a much higher energy density. But in current battery prototypes, silicon expands and breaks, causing short circuits. Therefore, silicon is not yet a suitable substitute for graphite anodes or electrolytes. However, working with BMW, Daimler and China’s CATL, startup Sila Nanotechnology believes it will have a ready-made solution for the commercial market by 2025. It uses spherical silicon particles that allow silicon to expand without breaking.

Quantum glass technology

In 2017, the co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Gudenaf, revealed what some believe may be the most interesting approach to electrolytes of all: glass alloyed with alkaline materials such as Li or Na, the so-called quantum glass.

The technology allows charging in minutes and does not create disturbing “spike” dendrites. Panasonic and Toyota are working together on it. QuantumScape, which is being distributed through a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in 2021, is expected to enter the market on a large scale with technology-based batteries by 2025.

Sodium technology

In July 2021, CATL announced that it expected to launch sodium-ion batteries by 2023 as a cheaper, albeit lower-power, alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Sodium (Na) is 100 times more abundant than Li and is easier and cheaper to extract and purify. Na ions are larger than their Li counterparts, making them more demanding in terms of structural stability and kinetic properties of battery materials.

CATL has developed a solid carbon anode material that allows abundant storage and rapid back and forth movement of Na ions through molten salt electrolyte with a Na metal oxide cathode. This means that the whole system is made of an abundance of materials such as iron (Fe) and manganese (Mn), not Co and Ni. Batteries promise high energy density, fast charging and better overall performance in low temperature environments at a low cost.

Liquid metal battery technology

Not only Na-ion batteries will be on the market soon. For example, by 2023, liquid metal batteries will compete with lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries for a number of stationery storage applications, in particular for integrating more wind and solar energy into networks. Liquid metal batteries use liquid calcium (Ca) anodes, antimony (Sb) cathodes, and molten salt electrolytes to provide cost, performance, and safety advantages over Li and lead acid-based technologies.

The Tesla factor

Tesla hopes its large 4860 batteries, which are expected to be in commercial production by 2024, will be revolutionary. The presumed breakthrough is based on the elimination of sections. These metal components are added to the batteries so that they can be connected to everything they power externally. The current problem is that production lines need to be paused to add partitions, and the process can damage cells. Tesla says it has found a way to incorporate tongue functions into internal anode and cathode collector films, eliminating the need for an attached component, streamlining the manufacturing process and making it less susceptible to defective products.

Solid state battery technology

Solid state batteries are approaching commercialization. They typically use ceramics and solid polymers in their electrodes instead of the liquids and polymer gels currently used in lithium-ion batteries. As a result, they will reduce the flammability of batteries and their tendency to short circuit and will significantly increase the number of charging cycles that the battery can last throughout its life.

Several solid electrolytes were tested, including plastic polymers, ceramics, glass, silicon, silicon-graphene compounds, garnets, and perovskites. However, advances in battery technology are growing and slow. There are over 100 companies and institutions working in the development of solid state batteries.

Development of technology for solid state batteries

The difficulty in developing end-user solid-state batteries was illustrated by Dyson’s sudden closure of its EV project in 2019, which was based in part on the success of developing solid-state battery technology. Toyota acknowledged the continuing difficulties in developing the technology and Bosch ceased operations in this area. A leading investor has also suspended MIT’s Pellion Technologies solid-state magnesium-ion project.

Alternatives to energy and battery storage

The main living alternatives to Li-based batteries are hydrogen fuel cells, ultracapacitors and thermal storage systems.

Japan and South Korea have long supported hydrogen for clean transportation and electricity supply applications. However, technology has largely remained limited to these two countries for car fuel. There was only limited networking of hydrogen refueling stations, in part due to public concerns about their safety. There are also problems with the cost and production of green, not blue or gray hydrogen. However, the UN-sponsored green hydrogen catapult initiative aims to improve technology and increase sales to reduce green hydrogen costs.

Ultracapacitors

Led by Skeleton Technologies, Hawa, Murata, Panasonic and previously owned by Tesla Maxwell, the aim is to fill the energy gap with batteries and merge the two technologies to form a dream team for applications that require the best of both. Several projects are underway to use carbon nanotubes to improve charge retention capacity.

This is an edited excerpt from Batteries – Case study report prepared by GlobalData Thematic Research.

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