The Li-ion battery dominates the secondary batteries market and will continue to do so, given the furious investment that companies (e.g. Tesla, and BMW) are making in order to stay at the front of the electric vehicle and energy storage markets. Globally, electric vehicles are anticipated to roll out on our streets, dominating the market by 2050. The UK government predicts that by 2020 there will be 1.2 million electric vehicles registered on the road. In other countries, similar explosive growth is anticipated, with India predicting 7 million vehicles, Germany 1 million, China 1.4 million, and the USA predicting 1 million, giving rise to a forecasted 17 million electric vehicles on the roads globally, all by 2020.
Investment in Li-ion batteries is now huge. Tesla is investing $5 billion into its 'Gigafactory 1' near Sparks, Nevada, £40 million has been invested in Nexeon, and the UK government invested £16 million in Dyson’s new adventure into electric vehicles and a further £20 million with Nissan for the development of a new generation of Li-ion batteries.
However, a recent article from the Brookings Institute states that this may not be an entirely good thing. The large on-going investment in Li-ion based technology may stifle the market, leaving innovative technologies in the dark and undeveloped. The article states that Li-ion technology has already reached its 90% threshold for theoretical capacity. To gain the last 10 percent is likely to be increasingly costly for each incremental development. Li-ion technology could therefore be reaching its practical limits in terms of performance and cost.
There are already many other new developments in battery chemistries, which could prove to outperform current Li-ion technology, for both energy density and longevity. These include lithium-sulphur, aluminium-air, silicon anode batteries, sodium ion, aqueous hybrid ion, aluminium-graphite, and others like foam and magnesium batteries. Some of these technologies are capable of outperforming current storage capacities in terms of key performance attributes such as, cycle lifetimes, costs, current densities, and safety of Li-ion. In addition, the movement away from Li-ion could reduce the environmental impacts associated with lithium mining, the rare earth content, and the presence of heavy metals. For example, the aqueous hybrid ion battery has already been awarded an environmental cradle-to-cradle certificate for using materials with higher global abundance and lower toxicity than the materials found in Li-ion batteries.
The other important issue to factor in is the safety of the battery chemistry. Samsung, Panasonic, Denon, HP, Sony, and Toshiba are just a few of the companies this year (2016) that have had to recall products over safety issues with their Li-ion batteries. There are innovative technologies which could provide much safer products, and this may become a critical factor in the race to create energy storage systems for our vehicles and homes.
In addition to the safety issues related to product use, the impact of Li-ion stability on end-of life treatment is also important. With over 1 million secondary batteries being received by the EU each year, the volume of batteries sent for waste treatment is set to rise steeply. These batteries must be moved, stored and handled under specific conditions, because of the health and safety issues with Li-ion batteries spontaneously catching fire.
The Brookings Institute report suggests governments should consider investing in alternative technologies, as well as Li-ion, to prevent crippling the market and potentially following a dead end. The full article can be found here.