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A Brief Past, Present, and Future with Batteries and Lithium Ion Technology

A battery in general is a device which makes electrically charged atoms (ions) travel from one point to another, creating electrical current. It does this by:

  • Having one positively charged electrode (cathode), and one negatively charged electrode (anode) in which the ions travel.
  • In the middle you must have a material for the ions to travel through called an electrolyte.
  • When the battery discharges to a device, positively charged ions travel from the anode to the cathode creating current.
  • When recharging, it pushes electricity back into the battery forcing ions to shuttle back to the anode where they are stored for future use.
  • Almost all aspects of battery performance depend on the materials used for the cathode, anode and electrolyte layer.

In the mid-19th century, three men by the names of Anyos Jedlik, Robert Anderson, and Thomas Davenport, created electric engines to power vehicles. Anderson created a crude electric powered carriage with non-rechargeable primary cells, Jedlik designed a small model car, and Davenport designed a small locomotive on an electrified track. These inventions made headway for a French physicist named Gaston Planté to invent the first lead-acid rechargeable storage battery in 1859.

Following this invention in the early 20th century, all electric vehicles were being driven by lead-acid batteries. This made electric vehicles superior to the internal combustion engine as they were much quieter, produced no emissions, nor did they require a hand crank to start the engine. After a series of inventions for the internal combustion engine, including an electric starter to eliminate the hand crank, the internal combustion engines reigned superior once again.

Many decades later in 1966, the car manufacturing company Ford decided to reinvent the electric car. They used batteries containing a sulfur cathode, and a sodium anode storing 15 times more energy, while being much lighter than the conventional lead-acid batteries. Although these batteries sounded like the perfect recipe, they operated at extremely high temperatures compared to the internal combustion engine (300°C and 90°C, respectively). The sodium, in which the anode was comprised of, has a melting point of 98°C and can ignite when in contact with air. This turned out to not be a viable option for a moving object and was practical only for stationary storage for electric power stations. Although this was an issue in Ford’s design, they announced to the public the car could travel 200 miles at highway speeds, compared to 40 miles at 40 miles per hour from the conventional lead-acid technology. This leap in battery potential began to stir up excitement for new innovation throughout the physics, and chemistry world.

After about 10 years, a man named Stan Whittingham announced that he had found a way to make an electrode from a layered material which could store lithium ions within sheets of titanium sulfide at room temperature. This type of storage was grown to be called intercalation or “the first lithium ion battery”. This battery was the first to have the potential to be used in smaller portable devices, all it had to do was work – which it didn’t do very well. The same electrochemical reactions that cause a lithium battery to work can also cause it to explode. This problem caused Whittingham’s work to be continuously unsuccessful and allowed opportunity for further advancements with the base technology.

During this same time, a man named John Goodenough, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, had been following Whittingham’s work and was convinced he could create a more powerful, and more resilient lithium ion battery. With experience in metal oxides (a combination of oxygen and a variety of metal elements), Goodenough determined that using these materials in the battery instead could result in more efficient charging and discharging. Goodenough gathered a team of 2 postdoctoral assistants to conduct tests on different oxides to determine the best fit for the battery. Soon after, the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode was created and was a breakthrough in battery technology.

Following this advance in 1991, the electronics company Sony combined Goodenough’s cathode with a carbon anode of their own, creating the world’s first commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery, beginning the portable technology age.

John Goodenough and many others have continued to improve, and further advance lithium-ion technology throughout the years to the product we have today. Today, lithium-ion is being researched and made more powerful than ever as we are moving more towards economically available electric vehicles (EV), storage for renewable energy systems, and home battery storage.

The future of lithium-ion batteries looks very bright and prosperous with large grid-scale battery storage, electric vehicle charging stations, and advancements in renewable energy efficiencies.

Large-scale grid storage is becoming more and more of a reality everyday as new battery technologies are providing a much more realistic kWh storage capacity vs cost. Battery storage costs should range from $230/kWh to $150/kWh for these large power grid batteries to be utilized in large numbers. Previously, it was thought that this would only be achievable by the year 2030 at a $400 billion investment. Eos Energy Storage is making the future a current reality by offering a new type of battery called the “Zinc Hybrid Cathode” battery, claiming it to have a very competitive $/kWh at $160. Companies that are currently focusing on these large grid-scale storage facilities will assist in lowering the costs of renewable, electric vehicles, and energy as a whole to be extremely competitive with fossil fuels, if not more attractive.

Looking at the smaller picture of battery storage; these advancements will also create an advantage for homeowners as they will have the opportunity to buy and store energy at low prices at low-peak hours, while using the stored energy during peak hours where prices are much higher. Solar technologies will also greatly benefit from the cost reduction of batteries (as batteries are basically the same price as the panels if not more) with the added benefit of increased storage capacity and grid connection. The thought in many homeowners heads throughout the last 10-15 years with solar has either been “If it’s so great, why isn’t everyone doing it?” or “Who wants to enter into a 20+ year investment for a poor return”. Solar is already following suit by reducing costs of manufacturing, while increasing efficiency to make it a more viable option for everyone and kick our fossil fuel habit. Solar is not the renewable technology that will benefit from increased battery capacity. Along with solar, another renewable technology is gaining headway for energy production across the globe. Off-shore wind turbines are an excellent form of energy generation as wind is available 24/7, 365 days a year. On one day in July of this year, the country Denmark produced 140% of its electricity consumption strictly from wind. They had generated so much electricity, the country exported 80% of the excess to its neighbouring countries Germany and Norway. By incorporating the large battery systems with world-leading renewable producers such as the European Union; being fossil fuel free could be a reality.

As batteries advance, EVs (electric vehicles) are becoming increasingly more popular and more economically available, thus increasing the need for charging stations. Business owners will be able to take advantage of this need by incorporating a storage system with charging stations in parking lots, parking garages, and curbsides. Below is a basic cost analysis for each tier of charging station available.

Home Charger InstallationParking Garage Installation

Curbside Installation  Curbside DC Fast Charger Installation

For the home charging stations, consumers would expectedly pay their normal rates of electricity ($.08/kWh, assuming charging at off-peak hours). As for the parking garage and curbside applications, there isn’t a set rate for how much each individual business will charge per vehicle charge. There are a various number of ways businesses are charging the consumer such as, free charging for a maximum period of time, a $/kWh consumed rate (similar to time-of-use rates where it’s cheaper after midnight), charging a flat rate for the first hour then increasing thereafter, and a fixed rate by the session (more common for DC fast charging stations). Many station owners are creating memberships for customers offering them a reduced rate from about $8 per session to $5 per session increasing client base and repeated business. As EV cars increase in popularity and price continues to decrease, charging stations could be a very wise and profitable business as they would become the gas station replacement of the 21st century.

Keep your eyes open for batteries as they may be the key to changing how we live, consume and use energy, and most of all, sustain our needs and planet for future generations.