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The battery challenge

Our dependence on lithium-ion batteries is growing fast.

Published
Reuters/Yuya Shino
Draining out.
  • The big idea

    Our future is electric and must be, if we’re to move away from fossil fuels. But that transition relies on a technology that is centuries old –– the battery.

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  • It’s a fact

    Few sectors of the global economy have seen as rapid a rise as the battery industry in recent years. Between 2005 and 2015, the world’s output of lithium-ion batteries grew 10-fold. And analysts project it will grow five times as large again by 2025.

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  • How it works

    Batteries are stores of energy created by the interaction of different elements at the atomic level. Since the first battery was invented in 1799 using only copper and zinc, researchers have harnessed many other elements, each with its unique properties, for use in batteries. 

    The battery’s basic structure hasn’t changed since the turn of the 18th century. Inside every battery, there are four components:

    • two electrodes (anode and cathode)
    • a separator (to prevent shorting)
    • an electrolyte (to move charges between the electrodes).

    But the original battery design had to undergo some major improvements before it could become practical for everyday use, including: 

    Rechargeability: Within 60 years the world’s first rechargeable battery was developed. Within a few decades it was already in use on a mass scale to power early automobiles.

    💪 Energy density and power capacity: Lithium-ion technology have now made fully electric cars a real possibility.

    💰Cost: The electronics industry has worked on bringing down the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which in turn made possible a growing number of portable devices.

    Lithium-ion batteries are found in almost every portable electronic device in use today, from deep-sea drilling equipment and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to smartphones and the Tesla Model S.

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  • Define your terms

    Here’s some lingo you’ll need to understand the battery revolution:

    Power vs. energy: Power is the rate at which energy can be released. Think of power like a car’s acceleration capabilities, and energy like the car’s range on a full tank. Different applications require different power and energy levels. 

    Watt (W): The rate at which energy is supplied.

    Watt-hours (Wh): A unit of energy, where 1 Wh is equal to consuming 1W of power for one hour. It’s the unit that appears on your utility bill. 

    Wh per kg (Wh/kg): How much energy is contained in a kilogram of a given material. The unit matters because the heavier the battery, the more energy it will take for a car or plane to lug it around.

    Wh per liter (Wh/l): How much energy is contained in a liter of a given material. The unit matters because the space available in a car to store the battery is limited.

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  • Q&A

    Which part of the world is leading on battery technology research?

    The US is the clear leader in battery research. Its government has made significant investments going back decades, first to get a competitive edge in space, then road transport, and now energy storage. The upshot is that the US has the greatest number of battery researchers, and thus it also produces the greatest number of battery startups. Still, the US doesn’t yet have the right support to help batteries go from pilot to industrial scale. As a result, a good few startups in the US have ended up scaling up in China.

    Check out more answers to key questions on the battery industry.

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  • What to watch for

    Lithium-ion batteries have transformed consumer electronics and kickstarted the process of electrifying buses and luxury cars. Entrepreneurs hope future iterations of Li-ion technology, or some other battery chemistries, will disrupt even more industries, including: 

    • Electric plane startups to watch: Pellion Technologies, PolyPlus, Solid Power, Cuberg, Romeo Power
    • Mass-market electric cars startups to watch: QuantumScape, Amprius, Sila Nano, Enovix
    • Energy-storage startups to watch: Malta, Primus Power, Form Energy, Redflow, Sonnen, Natron Energy

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  • CATL by the numbers

    Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL) has beaten its competitors to become the world’s largest maker of lithium-ion batteries. Eye-opening stats about the company include: 

    12: Age of the company

    Four: Number of new billionaires it minted when it listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange in 2018

    40%: The percentage of all batteries it supplies for electric vehicles in China

    Four: number of “gigafactories” the company has, including in Germany

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  • What to look for

    Every few years, somebody claims to have built a battery than can be fully charged in five minutes. Here are the questions we ask to tell whether the claim is hype or reality.

    1. Was the battery developed by an individual, a university lab, a startup, or a large company?

    2. What are the battery’s specifications?

    3. How many years before the battery is commercially available and for what applications?

    4. Have your claims been verified by a third party? What does the report say?

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  • Person of interest

    Image copyright: Kieran Kesner for Quartz
    Yet-Ming Chiang, 24M’s founder.

    Yet-Ming Chiang has founded six companies, including three battery startups. Two of the companies (one was involved in batteries and the other 3D printing) have gone on to become “unicorns,” with valuations over $1 billion. That in and of itself would be a rare feat for any entrepreneur, but Chiang has done it while keeping his day job as a material-sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s his view on the future of lithium-ion batteries:

    There is a lot of emphasis in trying to make lithium metal work. That may require solid electrolytes or additives for liquid electrolytes. We’re continuing to iterate like crazy. The number of really smart researchers working on batteries today is probably three times as many as 10-15 years ago.

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  • 🔋 Keep reading

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