The Use Of Lithium-ion Batteries For Large Scale Applications Is Impractical Except When Price Is No Object

by Jack Lifton on April 6, 2009 · 1 comment

in Batteries, Hybrids & EVs, News Analysis

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After nine years of research and billions of dollars of testing ideas, it is obvious that there is no technology or manufacturing process extant or on the horizon, which can bring to the market a practical, economically competitive, lithium-ion battery, which can be used in a power train for an electrified private passenger carrying motor vehicle. Why does the research continue?

My commentary here was prompted by John Petersen’s recent article on this subject, entitled “Lithium-ion Batteries: 9 Years of Price Stagnation“. This article uses experimentally derived numbers, not hype or emotion, to prove its point that the enormous amount of time and money, which has been dedicated to determining whether or not the theoretical conclusion that a lithium-ion battery should have more energy density on a weight-for-weight basis than any system based on nickel or lead electrochemistry, has failed to establish that such a conclusion, even if true, can be used to manufacture a practical device.

Endless announcements that one or another manipulation of, or discovery in, materials science has solved one or another of the problems holding back the production of an economical, durable, reliable, safe, and long lived battery of sufficient energy density and power delivery capability to be used in the electrification of a private passenger carrying motor vehicle have now become, frankly, boring. They all miss the point, which is that no one of them or any combination of them makes enough difference to make a difference.

Small rechargeable lithium-cobalt oxide batteries have been produced commercially since 1990 for use in portable personal electronics. These batteries work well enough and are better enough than other rechargeable batteries of their size and weight to justify selling them for a higher price than the traditional zinc carbon one time use batteries, which they replace.

For the simple reason that the length of time that a battery can deliver a constant power is key to the use of “portable” computers the rechargeable lithium-coablt-oxide battery also became standard for laptop computers where its ability to deliver enough power for longer than a rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery overcame its higher production-not raw materials-cost.

It turned out that NiMH batteries could be scaled up to a sufficient size to be used in a hybrid power train for a small car. But the inability of such batteries to survive deep discharge has eliminated their usefulness for fully electric-all battery-vehicle propulsion. A Toyota prius, for example, can only be driven for a couple of miles at any useful speed if it is operating on battery power alone.

The lithium-ion battery was developed before the NiMH battery, yet it has not yet been incorporated into a mass-produced hybrid vehicle power train. Why not? The answer is that the scaling up of lithium-ion batteries gives inconsistent results, and this type of result cannot be used as the basis of a mass produced technology. The risk of failure is too high either for safety or investment.

The answer to this inconsistency in most technologies would be to put the technology on the shelf until the problems can be resolved, if ever. In a world with unlimited wealth, continued trial and error might even be a good idea.

But we do not live in a world of unlimited wealth, nor in one of unlimited engineering and scientific talent.

It is time to put a limit on the the manpower and money that has been used to try and find a practical solution to the electrification of cars by onboard rechargeable batteries.

Fuel cells don’t work either because present technology is severely limited by natural resource availability.

The practical and economic answer is to use lead-acid batteries for the bulk of vehicle electrification, NiMH batteries for longer range and power in a hybrid configuration, and lithium-ion for high performance or where price is not an object.

I have come to this conclusion through reasoning based on experimentally derived numbers, because as the philosopher said, reasoning based on any other basis is sophistry and illusion.

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1 David January 27, 2010 at 9:38 am

Wow, you say it can’t be done….yet the automakers have already been doing it. Ford’s E-ka, Nissan Altra EV started us off on Lithium EVs years ago. The question is no longer can it be done but when. Lithium batteries are struggling for EV’s due to a couple of reasons…no one is making them in the large format needed for EV’s in any sort of quantity, nor will they until the production volume of EV’s looks promising enough to sustain large scale production. The reliability issues are understood, and have been addressed, with chemistry choices, with cell construction, and with balancing and control electronics…..they are as safe or safer than the Internal Combustion/ fossil fuel vehicles urrently on the road. Useable Energy densities are approaching par with gasoline as a storage media…

It’s easy to criticise from the outside….but please know your subject matter before doing so.

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