There are near-term prospects for battery technology, like the lithium batteries shown here, that could drastically change global dynamics. (FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Fire, the wheel, the compass, the internal combustion engine, the Internet: All are technologies that changed the world. Batteries could be next. Geographic constraints define geopolitics, but new technologies have the potential to overcome such constraints and, in doing so, to drastically change global dynamics. For this reason, we monitor technological advancements and developments, including in energy storage — batteries. Improvements to battery technology could shape our lives in remarkable ways, enhancing renewable energy integration into the power grid, making mobile robotics practical and reducing the price of electric vehicles in the not-so-distant future. If technologies advance to the point where current fuel sources (hydrocarbons) become less influential, the results will be quite literally earth-changing.
The modern battery can trace its roots back to Alessandro Volta in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Soon after, the first commercially produced battery — using zinc, copper and a brine solution — was made available. In 1859, the first rechargeable battery was invented, and since then, numerous material combinations — including lead acid, nickel cadmium, nickel iron and most recently lithium — have been used to power the growing assortment of electric devices used daily.
Lithium-ion batteries are the current industry standard of battery technology, in terms of storage capacity and lifetime. Increased use is reflected in the quickly climbing price of lithium. With no alternative available for widespread use and commercialization, demand is only expected to grow. As the supply side makes advancements, the cost to manufacture batteries will decline, enabling even greater increases in the use of lithium-ion battery technology. These advancements will be evident in the transportation sector and in the storage of renewable energy. In fact, South Korea recently announced the deployment of the world’s largest lithium nickel manganese cobalt, a specific type of lithium-ion battery that typically has a longer life than other material combinations, to support the country’s power grid. Additional projects are expected to emerge — especially in East Asia, Europe and the United States — as renewable capacity increases.
As battery technology becomes even more widespread, the production of lithium will change political and economic relationships across the globe. It is often assumed that the Andean region of South America will gain the most from increased lithium demand, as its stores are more cheaply and easily recoverable than those in other regions. Chile, already one of the world’s largest lithium producers, is in a particularly favorable position. Its lithium market is projected to see double-digit growth for the next several years, and will continue to climb alongside prices. (Global prices increased by 20 percent between September 2014 and October 2015 and are expected to increase by another 20 percent before 2018.) Neighboring Bolivia, which has similarly large lithium resources, will not fare quite as well, at least initially. It is underdeveloped and lacks the coastal access and political environment necessary to successfully compete with Chile and other global producers. Depending on future development and social advancements, it could eventually be a significant lithium producer. China and parts of the United States will also likely benefit as the industry expands. Australia, Brazil and Canada, where reserves are more expensive to exploit, could also benefit from an expanded market, especially if prices remain high enough.
But to assume that lithium will be the primary battery type in the long term, or even the sole energy storage technology in the near term, is shortsighted. Lithium is a geographically concentrated and comparatively expensive material. This, along with the inherent physical limitations of existing technologies, means that research into building a better, cheaper battery can be expected to continue with fervor. Academic and industrial journals are littered with papers and announcements on new milestones that various battery technologies have reached.
The most interesting developments are those that move away from lithium and toward the cheaper, more abundant sodium. However, sodium ions are larger than lithium ions. This means that for sodium to be a viable alternative, the graphite currently used in battery anodes must be replaced with another material. Recent articles have proposed replacing graphite with discarded organic material, including leaves and apples. The carbonized forms of these natural materials appear to be much more suitable for sodium ions. A lot of work needs to be done — and other potential solutions exist — but the march toward a sodium-ion battery continues, as do frequent and unexpected breakthroughs.
What exactly could replace lithium is unknown at this point, but there are options in the research pipeline that could prove useful. Even as the industry standard, lithium-ion batteries face competition in every sector. Flow batteries — which are easily scalable because they allow electrons to flow between vats of fluid — are one option for grid storage, as are fuel cells, flywheels and supercapacitors. Though it may take a decade or more for a lithium-ion competitor to emerge, the drive toward cheaper, more abundant materials will continue.
In the meantime, lithium-ion batteries will advance and become more prevalent. And though, eventually, lithium-ion batteries may very well fill many of the roles that hydrocarbons now play, lithium will never have the same geopolitical importance as oil. Using gasoline as a fuel requires constant replenishment. Batteries must be recharged, but the materials inside do not need to be replaced. Batteries can also be recycled and lithium reused. While this is good news, perhaps, for the environment, it also limits the amount a country can gain by promoting lithium exports.
Over the course of history, society relied first on wood and wind for its energy before moving to coal, oil and natural gas. The next transition — conceivably, to batteries — is just getting started. With it will come the rise of a whole new set of commodities, best reflected by lithium’s recent success and predicted growth. However, in all likelihood, lithium will eventually be replaced by something cheaper, more abundant and more universally accessible. Lithium’s prospects in the near future are exciting, but the duration of its success will be limited.