The Lessons and Limitations of the Lithium-Ion Battery
Before Ford’s Model T made gas-powered vehicles ubiquitous in our society, electric cars were preferred by discerning consumers for their lack of noxious emissions. Now, the return of the EV is not only imminent — it’s practically an imperative. In light of stricter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and several states banning the future sale of petroleum-powered cars, EV sales have increased rapidly over the last few years, and data shows those who make the switch are not looking back.
To keep up with the greater demand for electric cars, the batteries powering these vehicles need to be safe, affordable, and readily sourced. Lithium-ion (Ii-ion) batteries have been the go-to for clean energy technology thus far thanks to their energy density, but they’re not a perfect solution. The supply of raw materials for these batteries is controlled by a handful of countries prone to geopolitical volatility, while demand has grown across a range of applications, from consumer electronics to the electrical grid.
Li-ion batteries also come with fire concerns, rising prices related to supply chain instability, and environmental consequences surrounding their production. The world needs an energy-dense, high-performing battery to continue reducing man-made carbon emissions across sectors, but relying on li-ion technology as a means to that end may limit our potential for change.
The Growing Concern for Public Safety
Homes and the Power Grid:
As li-ion batteries grow more ubiquitous as a power source, so do reports of their safety risks — namely, battery fires caused by thermal runaway. News stories are emerging of e-scooter batteries overheating and igniting multifamily homes and apartment buildings, killing residents inside. New York City alone had 216 battery fires last year and at least 24 cases in January and February of this year.
A recap on why li-ion battery fires are so lethal: Before a battery cell in thermal runaway actually catches on fire, it vents flammable gasses such as hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide. These toxic vapors may seep through a building for hours before the moment of combustion. They often cause an explosion when they ignite, and it takes only milliseconds for the subsequent fire to engulf a building.
Residential battery energy storage system (BESS) installations increased by 200% annually from 2014 to 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. As li-ion batteries become more common in households running on solar energy, there is an increased risk of casualties as a result of runaway fire. Firefighters across the United States already view li-ion battery fires as a significant and growing problem — if such incidents continue, consumers will be disincentivized to invest in residential battery storage because they perceive the risks as too great.
For electrical grid applications, the ramifications of malfunctioning li-ion batteries go beyond safety concerns. Li-ion batteries are increasingly being used in renewable energy systems, including solar and wind energy, to store energy generated during periods of high generation and supply it when there is little or no generation. Battery fires at power plants around the world have resulted in significant financial losses and damage to infrastructure, ultimately impeding the transition to renewable energy. A recent fire in California resulted in a partial shutdown of Highway 1 and a shelter-in-place order for seven square miles north of the burning storage container.
Electric vehicles are one of the most promising applications of li-ion technology for reducing man-made carbon emissions, but batteries in EVs have been known to burst into flame without warning. And because the multiple cells can be at different stages of thermal runaway, li-ion battery packs may catch fire again hours or days after the first flames have been extinguished and the danger has seemingly passed.
Public safety concerns have already started to impede the electrification of public transportation. When a single EV bus caught fire in Connecticut, officials pulled the entire fleet from service and put an indefinite hold on plans to replace the state’s diesel buses. To implement electric-powered vehicles on a broader scale, manufacturers need safer battery technology that the public can trust — preferably, one that does not use toxic, flammable materials.
Li-ion batteries are an even riskier option for powering oceangoing cargo ships, since battery fires can be extremely difficult to extinguish at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard has therefore warned maritime shippers and regulators to exercise extreme caution in the transport of li-ion batteries. In the case of a battery-related explosion and fire at sea, workers could lose their lives in the time it takes emergency responders to reach them on the open ocean.
There are also severe environmental and economic risks associated with li-ion batteries at sea. In February 2022, a fire that started aboard the Felicity Ace, a cargo ship carrying nearly 4,000 automobiles, spread to the EVs onboard that caused the entire vessel to go up in flames. The fire was finally extinguished after several days of intense efforts, but only after drifting for days while releasing toxic fumes and heavy metals into the surrounding ocean. As for the Felicity Ace’s cargo, all of it sank along with the ship, amounting to an estimated $500 million in damages.
Maritime shipping produces about 900 million metric tons of pollutants each year and is projected to contribute 17% of global carbon emissions by 2050. There is enormous potential here to significantly reduce ship emissions through peak shaving at sea and by supplanting diesel generators to run hotel loads. However, the chemistry of li-ion and other batteries with flammable components prevents the shipping industry from realizing this potential because the risks are too high.
The High Costs of Outsourced Production
Ironically, the production of li-ion batteries is sometimes worse for the climate than fossil fuel vehicle batteries. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, every ton of lithium extracted through hard-rock mining results in 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
It doesn’t help that roughly 80% of the battery component refining and manufacturing occurs in Asia, a region notorious for its rampant coal consumption. Even if automakers do not feel the direct environmental impact of this trans-oceanic supply chain today, improved cradle-to-grave reporting may lead to increased carbon taxes in the future.
In fact, the price of li-ion battery packs increased for the first time ever last year due to rising production and supply chain costs. According to BloombergNEF, these price trends will soon negatively impact automakers’ ability to sell mass-market EVs without subsidies or other forms of support—something that we’re already seeing in countries such as Germany.
The Road to a Better Battery
In this chaotic battery market, the storage, automotive and maritime industries need to look beyond li-ion technology as well as inward for domestic development opportunities. The US federal government is investing $5 billion over five years for the establishment of a nationwide EV charging network, and 2021’s Inflation Reduction Act provides automakers incentives for using North American-made batteries, including the development of new battery technologies. Even greater incentives are available to utilities and storage project owners, who can recoup over 70% of total storage project costs through a variety of tax credits.
Of course, consumers will ultimately determine the success of alternative battery technologies. The manufacturer who finds a better battery than lithium-ion — both in terms of consumer safety as well as cost of production — is the one who will thrive in the market.
Mukesh Chatter is the CEO of Alsym Energy, a technology company developing a low-cost, high-performance rechargeable battery chemistry that is free of lithium and cobalt.
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