Battery Technology – What’s New, What's Next?

Fabian Böck / 15 July 2019 / Read: 8m 19s

Battery technology becomes more and more the backbone of future applications like battery-electric drive and renewable energy storage. It's crucial for the industry to know where the electricity comes from, and where the money flows.

Electrified World

What's a battery? Most people refer to batteries as tools you can put into your electronic devices to power them. However, the concept of batteries reaches far beyond that, of course. A battery, basically, is a unit where you can store energy in. What we usually call batteries base on electrochemical reactions in one or more cells; for single or rechargeable use. Other forms of batteries can actually base on various mechanics as well. Although those concepts will be mentioned later on, this article is mainly about electrochemical batteries. And, since these times are about making technology more and more sustainable, this article only covers new developments of rechargeable batteries – so-called "secondary batteries".

There's one particular angle that divides battery-related topics in two aspects. Number one: The electric grid has a growing demand for stationary energy storage. Number two: Electric vehicles need viable portable storage. While the grid can utilize many forms of energy storage like pumped hydroelectric storage, biofuel-based systems, and other concepts that we will discuss later, electric cars will mostly rely on batteries and fuel cell technology. There's a particular exception in a solar car that you can find in the article "Solar Power". Do also learn more about hydrogen fuel cell technology in the article "Hope for Hydrogen".

Of all potential chemical components, lithium-ion cells have by far the highest market share. While prices went nowhere but up over the last decade, there has been a decline in the recent one or two years due to higher production. As the battery-electric market is on a steep rise, the world will demand more and more batteries, and all of their chemical components alongside. So, producers of lithium, many of them located in South America, won't probably run out of business any time soon. And so is the market price for lithium about to rise again, as well as the price for all chemical components which help lithium to be effective (e.g., cobalt). This rise might add more pressure to the electric market.

"So far, only a small percentage of all electricity worldwide flows through batteries."

However, prices of lithium and other necessary components aren't the only problem for the battery business to overcome, but also some efficiency aspects. A lower degree of efficiency – compared to other sources of energy – makes the battery technology still too expensive a technology for a large-scale usage by now. So far, only a small percentage of all electricity worldwide flows through batteries. Regular forecasts would not see this percentage being increased significantly within the next decades. Unless there was an exponential growth of demand for batteries that will affect costs and prices. And, guess what, there's one particular market about to blow soon: battery-electric vehicles.

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Electric Cars Drive the Battery Market

We are surrounded by lithium-ion batteries everywhere, but the major field of the mobile application will be battery-electric vehicles. Although you don't see too many electric cars in the countryside or even in the city yet, this trend is rolling in–massively.

The battery-electric vehicle market is certainly not bound to Tesla. However, it is fair to say that no other company keeps pushing both awareness and technology like this company from California. Tesla's –some say–eccentric CEO, Elon Musk, some Twitter and SEC escapades, production hell, delivery hell, profit warnings: these are just some of Tesla's ups and downs in recent years. On the other hand, a car company like that is not easily built within a few years. It's not a dot-com company to skyrocket within weeks or months. So, it's still quite impressive what Tesla has achieved over the past years. Know-how, technology, and a brand that is well positioned in the market. Experts say part of Tesla's rock-solid customer backup is its will to constantly improve on product value in a way most of the other car manufacturers wouldn't do. And, who knows if we had an actual battery-electric market if it wasn't for Tesla. After all, we see hard competition from all of the major car manufacturers around the world today. Of course, they didn't forget how to make cars. All they needed was that hard push.

There are German car manufacturers who know how to build cars and do also know how to market. Take Audi's new e-tron GT that gained awareness around the world as part of a superhero blockbuster. This car is stunning for technological reasons as well. Since pressure on the battery efficiency side makes performance aspects even more critical, Audi is shaping out aerodynamic efficiency thousandth by thousandth. Or take Mercedes-Benz: this premium car manufacturer sets up a whole new brand and technology line – EQ. The upcoming EQC will be based on an innovative drive system with two electric motors at the front and rear axles with a combined output of 300 kW. Mercedes-Benz ambitiously aims for supplying more than 50% of their cars with all electric or plug-in technology by 2030. Finally, Volkswagen has announced to have launched the world's largest e-offensive by setting a goal to send out at least 1 million electric cars per year by 2025.

"Working on battery technology has become the key to success in the electric sector."

What all car manufacturers have in common is an urgent need for improving battery technology. As Mercedes-Benz puts it: Battery technology is not any interchangeable component, but an integral part of every BEV's architecture. Working on battery technology has become the key to success in the electric sector. So, some giants – like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Siemens – do cooperate with a promising startup named sila nanotechnologies, for example. With Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) reportedly investing 170 million Dollars, sila has become a unicorn worth over 1 billion. Sila makes silicon a durable anode to store at least 20% more lithium per atom than graphite. For car manufacturers that struggle to squeeze out even 1% of performance, this is a giant leap. Cost and efficiency of batteries are said to be the bottleneck for the success of batter-electric vehicles. Other than that, silicon technology could bring benefits in safety, weight, charge-duration, and range. We will see this new technology first in electronic devices, then in electric cars.

There are many more approaches to improve on electric-vehicle batteries. Bosch, a German technology corporation and automotive supplier, comes up with a solution to extend the service life of batteries using cloud-based swarm intelligence. As Bosch officials explain, smart algorithms recognize battery stress factors and optimize the recharging process.

And again, there is no article about future technology that doesn't include China these days. China's automaker BYD ("Build Your Dreams") is continuously pushing the output of electric vehicles. BYD is about to bring the global large-scale BEV production to the next level. As we learn from the electric car industry, the most significant barrier might be the progress in battery technology. So, it would be fair enough to say, when the internal combustion engine took 100 years of development, battery technology could take some time, too; apart from the fact that the underlying technology of chemical battery is said to be very complicated. However, it seems that there is so much pressure on the market that this technology is about to have a real breakthrough any time soon.

Industrializing for Large-Scale Demand

Battery-electric vehicles, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, other rechargeable household devices, power tools–or large utility-scale energy storage: the battery market is facing rapidly growing demand. To create a "normal" subsidy-free market, the industry has to produce in large-scale capacities in terms of quantity and magnitude, whether it is for mobile use like battery-electrics or grid storage. So, what will future storages look like? Not certain. Certain is, it's time for industrializing.

One of the most significant drivers of large-scale battery technology is Tesla, once again. Together with Panasonic, they have set up a giant battery factory in Nevada called Gigafactory 1. It cost 5 billion Dollars and puts out lithium batteries in series for Tesla's battery-electric vehicles and Powerwall systems. Tesla's Gigafactory 2 is located in the State of New York, a Gigafactory 3 is under construction in China, and Gigafactory 4 is planned in Europe. Furthermore, Tesla is evolving its Powerpack technology for utility and business energy storage – a well-known project located in Australia and worth reportedly 66 million Dollars. For building utility-scale storage in Australia, Tesla teamed up with Neoen, a private company that got financial support by German KfW IPEX-Bank. Not only because of this cooperation with Tesla, though, Panasonic is said to be the most relevant supplier of battery technology on the planet.

"only time will tell if it's enough for competing with what the economies in China and other Asian countries have set up"

Europe also gets more and more involved in industrializing battery technology as of recently. In 2017, the European Commission, several EU member states, the European Investment Bank, and important industry and innovation accelerators formed the European Battery Alliance. This organization aims for the industry to be competitive in a market annually worth 250 billion euros by 2025. Private company EIT InnoEnergy took the lead and successfully brought together more than 120 European and non-European stakeholders representing the entire battery value chain. Lately, we see more and more significant investments on European turf. The European Investment Bank, for example, supports a 350 million euros loan for NorthVolt AB's offer to set up a Gigafactory in Sweden. It's a promising start, but only time will tell if it's enough for competing with what the economies in China and other Asian countries have set up. Asian companies like Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., BYD, LG Chem, Samsung, and, of course, Panasonic have the most significant share of the world market of electrochemical battery production. By far.

Who knows, maybe it won't be all about electrochemical batteries. We remember that battery is a unit to store energy in. Especially for large-scale grid storage, there are many more ideas to deal with a growing need for electricity on demand. Problems in this sector came up, by the way, since the energy industry gradually turns to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. So, when there is too much production, energy needs storage. When there is too little, the grid needs to draw energy from storage — so, that's another field with desperate need for technological evolution.

Battery Technology – Perspectives

Starting with grid-scale energy storage, there are various solutions, be it in improved batteries, thermal storage, inertial storage (flywheel), or pump hydroelectricity storage. Further alternative is a concept called "Vehicle-to-Grid" that lets your car work like a battery, returning electricity to your household or the grid when parked in the driveway.

Another grid-scale energy storage bases on pump hydroelectricity technology. This kind of storage has raised attention around the world because of its technical simplicity: Pump water uphill when you produce too much electricity from solar and wind, and let it run downhill when needed, for example, at night. Problem with this technology is that it's expensive to build when conditions aren't suited ideally. Only Norway seems to be blessed with what is needed most: lots of mountains and loads of water. Besides, this way of storing is technically less efficient due to a loss of energy up to 50% towards batteries, for example. On the other hand, this cost of efficiency doesn't cost actual money, right? Pumped hydro storage is part of the gravitational storage physics. Some suggest to even lift up weights at any place. On paper, gravitation is another reality that is available in abundance.

"there are plenty of new solutions, liquid or solid-state"

Even in the electrochemical battery sector, there are plenty of new solutions, liquid or solid-state. Not only silicon, as mentioned, but other chemical elements are tested for improving battery parameters. Elements included in that equation next to silicon are magnesium, vanadium, graphene, carbon, zinc, sodium, and cobalt (cobalt excluded). Many batteries rely on cobalt for stability, but cobalt is expensive and has a bad reputation because of specific human rights indications. So, many producers and scientists aim to proceed without using cobalt.

To name a few: German Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) researches on magnesium-based battery technology, which could have better performance, lower costs, and enhanced safety compared to lithium-ion batteries – that's what KIT scientists hope to achieve. South African company Bushveld Energy massively promotes Vanadium Redox Flow Battery (VRFB) for performance advantages of flow batteries with the simplicity of using just one natural element – vanadium. Global players like Samsung improve on graphene-based battery technology, or even on new ways of storing energy as in supercapacitors (definitely worth another article). As we witness an urgent need for improvement, these upcoming solutions might be highly welcomed.

Charged with Challenges

Cost, efficiency, and large-scale aren't the only problems to overcome in this new industry. Any technology that claims to be cleantech must be aware of all production cycle aspects. So far, mining battery elements like lithium is not exactly environmental friendly, since it takes a few hundred thousand liters per ton of lithium to extract. Well, as always, for the transition to a cleaner environment, you have to start somewhere. But, don't forget this ecological footprint that this transition leaves when evaluating all options equally.

"what about coming up with a solution before it becomes a problem?"

Also, the market cannot forget about the end of a battery cycle. Now, we dispose of CO2 into the atmosphere; later on, we could be producing mountains of electronic waste. We know, this problem is far away and will be due in a decade from now upwards. However, what about coming up with a solution before it becomes a problem? Good to know that there is research on this matter already. Experts say, for example, that there is way more juice in a battery's second life, which might be good enough for grid-storage. Scientists already work on a solution to load used cells differently by applying algorithms. And, the industry knows about that problem and works on it, too, to be fair.

So, regarding technology, value chains, and production cycles: The battery market, all in all, will look completely different in short distance from now. Make your bets.

More articles on New Energy.

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