Is This Technology Putting Lithium Out of Business?
Last month, I did a short piece on the latest in battery design.
Turns out the co-creator of today’s modern lithium battery has come up with something he says is even better: a sodium battery that can hold 10 times the energy, charge faster, and last longer.
Oh, and it won’t explode... always a plus.
And, of course, it will do this at a fraction of the price of today’s li-ion designs.
It’s just what the doctor ordered!
One of the toughest things keeping energy storage from taking off in an even bigger way than it already has is price. Every big battery maker out there is competing to create the best battery on the market at the lowest price point possible.
And while lithium prices won’t always be climbing the way they are now, sodium is just cheaper all around.
Could this be the thing that knocks lithium out of the race?
A Little Salty
Right out of the gate, there are some questions this idea brings up.
The biggest of these is that if we really could run the world on salt, we’d already be doing it, right?
And the answer is the same one given to those who ask why wind and solar aren’t powering the world yet: the tech isn’t ready.
Just because John Goodenough, the father of modern lithium batteries, puts out a paper on a new battery design doesn’t make it the end-all of energy storage.
For one, even his original battery design, the one we use in practically every rechargeable device on the market today, took more than 10 years to be produced and used commercially.
Even though sodium is more readily available than lithium, the uniqueness of the new design means it’s probably fated for a similar delay.
Plus, this new design opens up a whole can of worms that scientists the world over can’t bring themselves to ignore.
Princeton professor Daniel Steingart has even said, “If anyone but Goodenough published this, I would be, well, it’s hard to find a polite word...”
Meaning the only thing carrying this new theory is the name behind it.
The paper, which you can read yourself here, details new specifications for an all solid-state battery that replaces the lithium anode with sodium and the liquid or gel electrolyte with solid glass.
In the process, critics say it also denies many of the basic scientific principles that make rechargeable batteries work.
That’s some rough criticism to take, but Goodenough and his team insist they’re right. Given his reputation, it should be clear that Goodenough knows what he’s talking about.
Jeff Dahn, another notable battery researcher currently working with Tesla, Inc., concedes, “Here is an experiment that is unbelievable. There could be a small possibility that it is right.”
Small possibilities, especially from experts in the field, can mean big things for investors.
Just what this one means for energy investors right now is a little unclear...
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The Bigger Picture
Lithium is one of the fastest-growing commodities in the energy industry, for the most part because of the boom in demand for energy storage applications.
Electronics, transportation, and even utilities are looking to implement the next big thing in rechargeable batteries. Worldwide energy storage capacity is expected to grow to more than 29.4 gigawatts by 2020, according to Navigant Research.
The fact that not all of this growth will necessarily include lithium is... less than shocking, actually.
You see, lithium actually makes up a very small — albeit expensive — part of a lithium battery.
And solid-state drives like Goodenough’s glass electrolyte design are just one of many alternatives to today’s admittedly lacking lithium design.
One of the more popular alternatives is the hydrogen fuel cell. It’s more efficient and even cleaner to produce than lithium batteries, but it requires the use of fossil fuels to get the hydrogen it needs to run.
Currently, bio-fuel methods are being tested as a solution to this, but with no luck so far.
Another possible design combines an aluminum cathode with a graphite anode to produce a battery that charges in a fraction of the time of li-ion.
The downside is that its discharge capacity couldn’t power a smartphone, let alone an electric car.
Graphene supercapacitors are also in the works and offer the same benefits and drawbacks as aluminum-graphite.
Of course, the severe lack of energy density could easily be solved... if only graphene, a material made of single-layer sheets of graphite, weren’t so hard to make in large quantities.
At the end of the day, producing any of these at a scale big enough to take lithium out of the picture would be prohibitively expensive, even if the materials themselves are cheaper.
Companies must heed the cautionary tale of A123 Systems, which went bankrupt in 2012 trying to produce a commercially viable lithium iron phosphate design. It eventually fought its way back onto the market, but it took years and the support of bigger players to regain even the small market share it has today.
We know lithium may not always be the world’s #1 choice in battery material...
But make no mistake; it’s still not getting replaced, not even by its own creator, anytime soon.
More importantly, the market isn’t done raking in cash on today’s “white gold” just yet... you just have to be able to separate the quality stocks from the trash.
And with the frightening speed at which technology today is advancing, lithium is an incredibly important component to that growth going forward.
Until next time,
A true insider in the energy markets, Keith is one of few financial reporters to have visited the Alberta oil sands. His research has helped thousands of investors capitalize from the rapidly changing face of energy. Keith connects with hundreds of thousands of readers as the Managing Editor of Energy & Capital as well as Investment Director of Angel Publishing's Energy Investor. For years, Keith has been providing in-depth coverage of the Bakken, the Haynesville Shale, and the Marcellus natural gas formations — all ahead of the mainstream media. For more on Keith, go to his editor's page.
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