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Why Lithium is King in Rechargeable Tech

There's Only One Thing Holding Lithium Back Now

Written by Meg Dailey
Posted July 21, 2017 at 8:00PM

We talk about lithium a lot here.

I mean a lot.

It’s hard not to. The commodity has made us and our readers a small fortune in the past few years alone, and it’s not looking to slow down anytime soon!

But I got a fair question from a reader the other day: What about other kinds of batteries?

After all, lithium-ion is far from the only rechargeable option we have.

So today I’m going to take a look at a few other popular battery types to see which one has the most staying power for those with an investment mindset.

For now, I’m counting only battery storage technologies; we’ll save heat and water storage techniques for another day.

Lead with Lead

Lead-acid batteries are the oldest in existence. They were used to power the first electric vehicles — back when they were just buggies minus the horses! Today, they still make up the bulk of car batteries.

Duracell Lead Acid BatteryThey’re also, as I’m sure you already know, used in millions of everyday devices, from remote controls to flashlights to children’s toys. Your average household AA, AAA, and 9V batteries are lead-acid.

Lead-acid batteries are best for applications that require a lot of consistent power, so long as weight isn’t a concern. They can also be found in UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems, such as the backup power in your home desktop computer.

By 2025, the lead-acid industry is expected to be worth nearly $85 billion, according to Grand View Research, Inc.

Growth in the battery industry will come from expanding automotive industries all over the world, as well as increased use in utility storage systems.

Lead-acid batteries were, in fact, the first type to ever be used in large-scale energy storage projects. However, as they have a lower density (30–50 watt-hours) and cycle life (200–300 cycles) than most other rechargeable battery types, only certain projects use them today.

Nickel and Co.

Nickel has its own place in the energy industry.

The commodity itself is an attractive one for metal investors, as it’s an essential component of many electronics, magnets, and stainless steel production.

NiMH BatteryYou can find out just what kind of opportunity it’s offering investors right here.

According to Battery University, there are two main types of nickel-based rechargeable batteries: nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH).

NiCd is the second-oldest type of rechargeable battery in the world. It was invented in 1899 and uses nickel as an electrode and cadmium for an anode.

This combination makes NiCd ideal for use in video cameras, power tools, medical equipment, and more. They’ve got a density between 45 and 80Wh and can run through as many as 1,500 charge cycles with maintenance.

NiMH batteries are a little newer and use an alternative alloy in place of the cadmium. This gives them a higher energy density (60–120Wh) and discharge speed, but a much shorter life (300–500 cycles).

Still, this makes the best NiMH batteries suitable for some larger laptops and cell phones.

For something with a little more kick, though, you’re still going to need...

Lordly Lithium

Lithium is, as you well know, king in the energy markets right now.

It’s the fastest-growing segment of the battery industry and could be worth as much as $69 billion by 2022, with the utility storage segment alone reaching $12 billion by 2024.

And that’s just the start of it.

Lithium battery use in utility storage projects, electric cars, and a growing number of rechargeable devices is still expected to push this metal to new highs.

Lithium-ion batteries are used in cell phones and laptops that require a higher energy density than NiMH can offer. (I just popped my own phone open to check; it’s Li-ion.) These batteries use cobalt and graphite as the cathode and anode, with a liquid lithium electrode between them.Panasonic Lithium-ion Battery

Li-ion has a density between 110 and 160Wh. Though they only run between 500 and 1,000 cycles depending upon how you use them, that higher density more than makes up for it.

And, of course, they’re always being improved.

Li-ion polymer batteries use a gel of lithium, which reduces the density but can be condensed into a smaller, thinner battery for more compact operations, such as ultra-slim phones.

Soon, we may have solid-state lithium batteries, which use lithium-doped glass for the electrode, adding cycles and density all at once!

However, the biggest improvement is one we’re still struggling for: a lower price.

You see, the only thing keeping lithium batteries from really blowing every other technology out of the water is how much they cost. At the moment, they can be around 3x as expensive as a comparable NiMH battery!

That’s not stopping anyone from using them. But it’s something the industry is still striving to fix.

The Verdict

There’s no escaping lithium now.

Though there are existing battery technologies that can match or exceed their density and cycle life, constant improvements to the technology make Li-ion a powerhouse not to be trifled with.

It all comes down to cost, a problem the infamous Elon Musk intends to remedy soon.

And we’re still raking in the gains on these essential battery commodities in the meantime. Lithium, cobalt, and graphite are on a tear, and the outlook on all three only improves the cheaper lithium batteries get.

So yes, I hear you. Lithium isn’t the only battery type out there.

But for the future we’re headed toward, it’s the best thing we’ve got.

Until next time,

Megan Dailey Signature

Megan Dailey

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Megan Dailey is a fresh young face on the investment scene. In her years as a research analyst with Angel Publishing, she’s learned that adapting fast to new investment situations is critically important to successfully navigating today’s volatile market. Her research has helped individual investors identify fast-growing companies in the energy industry that pay actionable investors back in spades. In an age of boundless information, her research is razor-focused on the most lucrative opportunities in energy and beyond. Megan’s research can be found in her weekly editorials on the Energy and Capital site. She also manages the Energy and Capital social media, and is always ready to answer your questions about energy investments via Facebook or Twitter!

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