Lithium-ion Battery Breakthrough?

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 11, 2013

Did you know that the common lead-acid battery has actually been around for more than a hundred years? It’s been around for 154 years, actually, and in essence unchanged.

You would think something as basic as batteries would have kept pace with the advances in all areas of human technology. And that’s just what may be about to happen.

For the past two years, a joint team of engineers formerly with the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota (NYSE: TM) Prius teams have been collaborating on developing a radical new kind of battery system. In short, they are hoping to develop a battery that can power a broad range of vehicles, which lithium-ion, despite its widespread usage in the automotive sector, simply cannot do.

Lithium-ion: Not a Silver Bullet?

Despite lithium-ion batteries’ pervasive presence, the problems have been numerous. There have been many incidents reported where the batteries have abruptly caught fire, started smoking, or have otherwise malfunctioned catastrophically.

Want a high-profile example? Take the recent incident with two Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The overheating batteries forced air traffic regulators to ground both aircrafts. The Dreamliners are Boeing’s flagship models—and the PR was definitely not good for lithium-ion batteries.

Today, D.C. will see a group of battery experts convene, courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board, to discuss the current scenario and possible solutions. Undoubtedly one of the chief concerns will be that lithium-ion technology has, in short, peaked and reached a plateau.

We haven’t seen any significant improvements in form factor or efficiencies, high costs remain a problem, and technical complexity has not been greatly reduced—all in addition to the ongoing safety concerns.

At this point, thinking on the topic seems clear: stick with lithium-ion technology and try to improve matters, or discard it entirely in favor of newer solutions.

Some big names favor working with lithium-ion, with the long-term intent to improve efficiencies and generally make it a more acceptable solution. These include Boeing (NYSE: BA), Tesla Motors Co. (NASDAQ: TSLA), and General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) among others. The latter is particularly well-poised to handle the issue—the Volt kept catching fire during battery tests run by the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Reuters quotes the company:

“GM is committed to lithium-ion technology for our vehicle electrification solutions,” the largest U.S. automaker said in a statement, adding that it has been seeing “improved economies” on the technology.

Boeing, for its part, essentially seems to want to follow a “been there, tried that, sticking with it” policy. Company officials cite decades of experience and thus hope to continue making improvements.

Moving Away from Lithium-ion

Meanwhile, Toyota has officially made its stance clear—find something other than lithium-ion. The aforementioned Volt incident makes for a great example of what’s at stake. Yes, GM overcame the issues with the Volt. And yes, in order to do so, they had to create a battery that actually has more components than the rest of the car combined.

The Volt’s battery comprises 600 seals and other cooling components, and you’d better hope they all stay shipshape if you want to avoid serious risks. And the biggest problem with lithium-ion fires is that once a fire starts, it self-propagates, meaning it is very difficult to extinguish it. That’s the biggest criticism detractors make.

So why is Energy Power Systems focusing on lead-acid technology, something that is actually older than lithium-ion?

For simplicity’s sake. Lead-acid technology is simpler in principle and therefore opens up broader potential for systemic improvements, thus leading to further efficiencies while maintaining simplicity and safety.

Moreover, EPS’s technology relies on existing low-cost materials. That means, in the end, EPS can provide batteries at costs that lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride solutions just can’t match.

Hence EPS is pushing forward with developing lead-acid based battery solutions that could find applications in transportation, Smart Grids, as well as rapid recharging platforms for existing EVs of all stripes.

The very simplicity of the chemistry used in lead-acid battery technology means that EPS can afford to create low-cost/high-power solutions. All of this also means that, unlike lithium-ion, EPS’s batteries will make for easy recycling—overall a simpler, neater solution.

Meanwhile, the lithium-ion battery market isn’t exactly stagnating. Rather, by 2020, there’s a 300 percent growth expected, meaning a $43 billion market from today’s $11 billion in yearly sales.

The real problem is that, big sales numbers notwithstanding, it’s the selling price that keeps dropping sharply. From today’s $500-$600/kilowatt-hour, we should see prices around $200/kilowatt-hour within eight years or so—and that could mean major problems for many companies who’ll see their profits shrinking dramatically.


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