Over the last decade, there has been a new battery ‘breakthrough’ announced every couple of months, but we’re still waiting for any of them to emerge from the labs and dethrone lithium as king of the battery technologies.
Prototypes and conceptual chemical models have been demonstrated, some in dramatic fashion, but when it comes to commercial applications, like electric cars and household power, we’re all still relying on lithium in its various guises. Lithium-ion, lithium-sulphur, lithium iron phosphate, and lithium metal all rely on lithium to provide the capacity to store and release electrons on demand.
We all know the downside of lithium batteries; they can catch fire if they short-circuit or overcharge, and eventually run out of charging capacity. But pound for pound they have the best energy density, and incremental innovations over the years have made them the industry standard for everything from phones to cars to smart homes and microgrids.
Scientists, researchers and inventors have tried various combinations of nickel, aluminium, silver and graphene, to name but a few, in an effort to find a cheaper, safer material than lithium, but so far the alternatives have all failed – either on performance or economics. Vanadium flow batteries are great for solar grid storage, but not much use in a car; bipolar polymer packs are cheap but don’t have the power to accelerate out of a curve. Solid state batteries are safe, but oh so pricey!
Since Tesla tweaked their batteries to last 20 years despite daily charging and ramped up production to benefit from massive economies of scale, there’s just no beating lithium for pure bang for the buck. Which is probably why it’s the hottest metal since gold and platinum – and likely to stay that way.