The fierce competition to build the world’s best battery
On April 3, 1973 Martin "Marty" Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, stood on 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan and dialed the number of Dr. Joel S. Engel, his competitor at AT&T, into an enormous cordless phone. Marty’s message to Joel was clear: Motorola had won the race to build the world's first mobile phone.
It would take another 10 years and $100 million before the first cellphone was available to consumers—at an exorbitant cost of $3,995. The DynaTAC, now known as “the brick,” required about 10 hours of charge time for every 30 minutes of talk time and weighed 2.5 lbs.,most of which came from its sizable battery.
More than forty years after Marty made that groundbreaking call, our cellphones weigh less than a quarter of a pound—a tenth of the weight of the DynaTAC—and require just a few hours of charge time to run for several days. Advances in battery technology have turned our phones—and the rest of our gadgets—into lightweight, rechargeable, efficient machines.
And none of this would be possible without lithium.
The third element on the periodic table, lithium is the essential component in lithium-ion batteries, the best storage devices we have to power society’s smallest and largest technology, from a wristwatch to a city bus.
Before lithium batteries came along, tech manufacturing relied on heavy batteries that didn’t hold much of a charge. Then in the early 1990s, Sony unveiled the first commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Sony’s batteries were both lighter and more powerful than anything else on the market—cell phones that once had run on six nickel cadmium batteries needed only two of Sony’s lithium-ion batteries. Over the next few decades lithium batteries turned heavy stationary objects into tiny rechargeable gadgets that could slip neatly into a pocket or bag.
Lithium has a lot of virtues as an energy source. It is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element with highest energy to weight ratio, making it an ideal material to use in transportable gadgets. Because of its weight and electric output, lithium-ion batteries are more attractive than their heavier rechargeable rivals, like nickel-metal hydride and lead-acid batteries. And while those batteries began to lose their energy capacity over time as they are recharged after being only partially discharged (what’s known as the “memory effect”), lithium-ion batteries retain their maximum capacity as they’re used again and again.
Ever since Sony’s lithium battery changed the battery market almost thirty years ago, it’s been a race to improve on rechargeable energy storage technology. Battery technology has not kept pace with computer technology—the lithium-ion batteries we use today aren’t much of an improvement over the product Sony released in the 1990s. While our computer performance has improved by leaps and bounds—consider the difference between the user interface on a computer 20 years ago and a laptop today—battery technology has advanced at a much slower rate.
As our society turns to lithium as an alternative to fossil fuels, scientists and manufactures around the world are engaged in race to make a breakthrough in battery technology.
“We are currently reaching the theoretical capacity of such technology. We need a breakthrough,” says Dr. Didier Devaux, a scientist who studies lithium batteries at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The Holy Grail of the battery industry is a lightweight, cheap battery that can store an immense amount of energy. This would have tremendous advantages for both electric car manufacturers and renewable industries, which need efficient batteries to store energy generated by wind, solar, and hydro power. This has sparked a frantic space race in lithium battery research. Labs all over the world are desperate to develop and patent new battery technology and sell it to companies like Panasonic and Sony.
“The competition is very, very stiff because energy storage is so important,” Dr. Zheng Chen, a battery researcher at Stanford. “There are at least hundred labs in the United States doing battery research. The competition is crazy.”
It’s not just science that’s paying attention to this market shift. Investors are also taking note of the move toward lithium power. According to a report published in The Economist, the price of 99%-pure lithium carbonate imported to China more than doubled in the last two months of 2015. In a December 2015 memo to clients, Goldman Sachs called lithium “the new gasoline,” projecting the metal “will be a key enabler of the electric car revolution and replace gasoline as the primary source of transportation fuel.” The report estimated that demand could multiply more than ten fold over the next ten years.
In the race to build lighter, cheaper, energy-dense batteries some fear that safety is being overlooked. Despite all its advantages, there are significant downsides to using lithium in batteries. Lithium-ion battery cells are filled with extremely reactive materials. If a lithium battery’s packaging is damaged or pierced the battery can catch fire.
This reactivity danger has led the Federal Aviation Administration to ban lithium batteries in checked bags for fear that a fire in the plane’s cargo could several damage the aircraft in flight. Hoverboards—the recently popular motorized transportation devices—made headlines in 2015 when many of the poorly designed lithium-ion batteries inside the machines began to catch fire. Cheaply made separators (a piece separating the anode and cathode) in the batteries were easily damaged, which led to the cell overheating and eventually igniting flammable materials inside the battery.
“You have to understand conventional lithium-ion battery are made with volatile compounds,” Devaux says, “Compounds that can readily volatilize then catch fire—those are nasty materials.”
At the Berkeley lab where Didier Devaux conducts his work, researchers use chambers outfitted with thick rubber gloves—lithium can’t come into contact with air or water so the chambers are filled with argon—otherwise the metal would explode. Devaux, who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, is working on developing battery materials that optimize lithium battery performance without compromising safety. An electrolyte polymer that his team—the Balsara Battery Group—is working on is a rigid, solid polymer—unlike the flammable liquids in conventional lithium batteries.
We are still a long way away from seeing this kind of technology implemented in everyday devices. And in the absence of a completely safe battery, manufacturers will continue to rely on cheap and hazardous batteries to meet market demands.
Two hundred and fifty miles east of Lawrence Berkeley Lab lies the most ambitious battery project the world has ever seen. In the Nevada desert, Tesla is building the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery factory. When it’s completed in 2020 this “Gigafactory”—the largest building on the planet—will double the world’s lithium-ion battery production. The Gigafactory is expected to dramatically change the landscape of lithium battery manufacturing.
As industry leans more heavily on lithium battery technology consumers will demand products that are safer and hold more power. It doesn’t matter how sleek a phone or car looks on the outside—if it can’t hold a charge it won’t edge out the competition. Ultimately the products with the best batteries will win.
In the more than 40 years since Marty Cooper made the first cell phone call, portable rechargeable electronic devices have become ubiquitous. Nearly everyone today carries lithium-powered gadgets—and we’re moving toward a world in which we rely on lithium to power our vehicles and buildings. But our ability to develop lithium-ion battery technology has stalled, seeing only minor improvements over four decades. In the race to build the best battery, whoever can figure out how to dramatically improve battery storage and efficiency without compromising on safety will change the future of energy.