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Improved Lithium-Ion Battery Technology

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 25, 2013

Singapore-based Gcorelab is making waves in the lithium-ion battery business.

The clean-tech company has been awarded $482,000 in funding to help advance its efforts to develop a new technology that could resolve some of the heat issues that have long made problems for lithium-ion batteries.

lithium-ion batteries sidebarCurrent battery packs that incorporate lithium-ion cells (think laptop batteries, cell phone batteries, and bigger electric vehicle batteries) typically have a certain vulnerability. The cells can (and often do) overheat. This causes neighboring cells to also overheat in a chain reaction, called “thermal runway propagation”—and this could prove dangerous, as the process can end in explosive combustion.

Gcorelab offers a cooling solution that uses cooling plates. The company’s proprietary “oblique fin technology” makes for cooling results 50-80 percent better than existing liquid cooling systems, TechCrunch reports. The cinch is that the process even requires the same amount of energy.

According to Gcorelab co-founder Ray Kung, battery heat management systems are shifting to liquid-based systems from air-based ones. That’s because air-cooling systems are rather inefficient, if cheap and readily put in place.

So Gcorelab hopes to provide a more affordable solution to liquid-cooling systems. That’s an ambitious program, to say the least, since numerous industries stand to benefit if Gcorelab’s venture bears any fruit.

Lithium-ion Battery Shortfalls

Lithium-ion battery problems have made news for a long time. Laptops and phones have overheated, melted, and exploded. Electric toothbrushes have exploded, too.

In a recent high-profile incident, Boeing had to ground its entire Dreamliner 787 fleet due to combustion and overheating problems linked to lithium-ion batteries. That cost the company some $600 million in lost revenue.

In fact, Elon Musk of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) went on record to point out that his company’s cars avoid Boeing’s Dreamliner problems by increasing the spacing between battery cells and using smaller cells. That’s a compromise, and it’s necessary because of the current inefficiencies of lithium-ion battery technology.

Gcorelab is currently in efforts with a Chinese bus manufacturer to test-drive its new technology. China, of course, is a rapidly growing electric-vehicle market with a target of 5 million EVs on the road by 2020.

According to TechCrunch, Gcorelab estimates the EV cooling market will become a $5.7 billion-per-year market by 2020, in sync with the expanding acceptance of EVs in markets around the world. Plus, of course, this technology can also be adopted by wind energy markets and aerospace industries.

Gcorelab’s system moves away from using liquid-filled tubes to rely on a blend on regulatory sensors and cooling plates in order to identify overheating spots and draw heat away from them. It’s basically a high-tech heatsink. The heater-cooler combination relies on the sensors to get a clear “picture” of the thermal environment, thus becoming capable of managing the overall temperature.

Battery management has become a trending sector recently as more and more applications are found for batteries. And the lithium-ion sector is especially active with companies trying to develop ways to either move away from conventional lithium-ion technology (and back to the traditional lead acid-based model) or come up with radical innovations that would improve current lithium-ion efficiencies.

The Growing Lithium Market

By 2020, the lithium-ion market overall could be as big as $43 billion. That’s a growth of nearly 300 percent. Right now, companies are frequently hurting from cascading selling prices, which are moving from the $500-$600/kilowatt-hour range to somewhere around $200/kilowatt-hour over the next decade.

Among the companies in the Global X Lithium ETF (NYSE:LIT), FMC Corp. (NYSE:FMC) and Rockwood Holdings (NYSE:ROC) are both doing well, with FMC up 11 percent and ROC 20% over the past 12 months.

But the movements in the mining sector matter. Right now, just about 20 percent of all the lithium mined goes into lithium-ion battery production. Given that the lithium battery market is expected to grow around 18 percent each year, that means one of three things must happen: the supply of lithium needs to go up; more percentage of mined lithium needs to go toward manufacturing batteries; or the end-product prices must go up.

Companies have responded. Canada Lithium (TSX:CLQ) has undertaken a five-year plan with Tianjin Products and Energy Resources Development Co. for 12,000 tonnes of lithium per year.

Toyota (NYSE:TM) has paired up with Orocobre (TSX:ORL) to work on the first ever brine-based lithium project, which could produce up to 17,500 tonnes annually.

Lithium and lithium-ion battery development will be interesting markets for some time to come.


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