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DOE Reports That Lithium-ion Batteries Are Not Ready for Prime Time

by John Petersen


Last month the DOE released its 2008 Annual Progress Report for the Energy Storage Research and Development Vehicle Technologies Program. This report is a frank and relatively upbeat assessment of the current status of Li-ion battery research and development that also provides a stark wake-up call for investors in energy storage stocks. The reality check has been done and the DOE’s verdict is clear: Lithium-ion batteries are not ready for prime time.

In its description of ongoing research efforts to develop high-energy batteries for PHEVs, the DOE said:

“High-power energy storage devices are among the critical technologies essential for the development and commercialization of HEVs. This effort is focused on overcoming the technical barriers associated with commercialization of high-power batteries, namely:
  • Cost – The current cost of Li-based batteries is approximately a factor of two too high on a kW basis. The main cost drivers being addressed are the high cost of raw materials and materials processing, the cost of cell and module packaging, and manufacturing costs.
  • Performance – The barriers related to battery performance include a loss in discharge power at low temperatures and power fade over time and/or when cycled.
  • Abuse Tolerance – Many high-power batteries are not intrinsically tolerant to abusive conditions such as short circuits (including internal short circuits), overcharge, over-discharge, crush, or exposure to fire and/or other high-temperature environment.
  • Life – The calendar life target for hybrid systems (with conventional engines) is 15 years. Battery life goals were set to meet those targets. A cycle life goal of 300,000 cycles has been attained in laboratory tests. The 15-year calendar life is yet to be demonstrated. Although several mature electrochemistries have exhibited a 10-15 year life through accelerated aging, more accurate life prediction methods need to be developed.”
I’m a simple-minded creature and I believe that little things like costs and benefits matter, particularly in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s. When the Annual Progress Report from the DOE group responsible for supporting Li-ion battery research and guiding national policy concludes that:
  • Li-ion batteries will not be a cost-effective solution for HEVs unless and until somebody finds a way to slash manufacturing costs by 50%; and
  • Li-ion batteries will not be a cost-effective solution for PHEVs unless and until somebody finds a way to slash manufacturing costs by 67% to 80%;
I believe them.

When the same Annual Progress Report says that the principal cost drivers are the high cost of raw materials and materials processing, the cost of cell and module packaging, and manufacturing costs, I have to wonder whether the DOE’s target price reductions of 50% to 80% are even remotely possible. My limited understanding of the laws of economics tells me that the price of raw materials invariably increases when demand for those materials increases. Since approximately 70% of finished Li-ion battery costs are attributable to raw materials I have to at least ask where the cost savings will come from. I have never heard a reasonably specific answer to that question.

I fully support Federally funded research to develop cost-effective Li-ion batteries for large scale energy storage, but I’ve spent enough time representing R&D stage companies to know that technical dreams and visions are frequently not attainable in the cruel world of cost accountants and the most spectacular failures occur during the transition from the laboratory bench to the factory floor. Li-ion batteries are a great concept for electric transportation but they are not currently viable products for HEV and PHEV applications and they have some very high hurdles to clear before they become viable products.

Until all of the technical barriers identified in the DOE's Annual Progress Report are overcome,  proposals to spend Federal money building factories to manufacture devices based on existing Li-ion battery technologies are nothing more than Catch 22 arguments that the applicants can manufacture a product for a dime, sell it for a nickel and make up the difference on volume.

I’ve written volumes criticizing the nosebleed market capitalizations of U.S. based Li-ion battery developers including Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI), Ener1 (HEV) and Valence Technologies (VLNC). I’ve also written volumes on why I believe advanced lead-acid battery producers like Exide Technologies (XIDE), Enersys (ENS), C&D Technologies (CHP) and Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) are undervalued. A complete archive of my articles is available at Seeking Alpha.

My recurring theme since day one has been that Li-ion batteries have insurmountable cost, performance, abuse tolerance and cycle life problems that must be overcome before they become viable products. It’s nice to see a hot off the press DOE report that confirms the reasonableness and validity of the questions I’ve been asking for months.

America’s energy problems are too urgent to overlook and its economy is too stressed to invest billions in technologies that may never become cost effective. Our only rational choice is to go to work today with the tools we have and be ready to embrace newer and better tools when they prove to be cost effective.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of and holds a large long position in Axion Power International (AXPW.OB), a leading U.S. developer of lead-carbon batteries, and also holds small long positions in Exide (XIDE) and Enersys (ENS).

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Comments

John, Do you remember when microprocessors first came out? They cost a bundle and contained a tiny number of transistors (by today's standard). Or when the first cell phone came out that weighted 10 lb and cost a couple of thousand? Most could not see beyond the high costs back then and many predicted their early commercial demise.

One may argue electronic devices enjoy economy of scale that can not be applied to battery chemistry. That may be true for the "macro" chemistry. With the new "nano" chemistry a revolutionary leap in performance may be possible.

I don't know where we will be in 5 years, but I do know it will defy all predictions we make today.

My 2c.

Woga, the term "nanotechnology" as used in the battery industry typically means that the materials are ground extremely fine to maximize the reactive surface area and minimize waste. Fine grinding of materials can only go so far and most of the possible advances have already been made. In other words, most claims of nano-magic are nothing more than PR hype for people who do not understand the difference between grinding natural materials and creating structured materials one atom at a time.

Impressive work is being done on true nano-structured materials including carbon nanotubes and graphene. The ongoing R&D hold tremendous promise for the long term, but the current crop of nano-claims have almost nothing to do with the real science being done at places like Rice and MIT.

John, you didn't address the question of recycling cability for lithium ion versus lead-acid battery chemistries. I don't believe there's any recycling infrastructure for Li-ion, but lead-acid has an advanced and successful recycling infrastructure resulting in a more than 95 percent reclamation rate for spent lead-acid batteries. How costly would it be to establish a comparable infrastructure for Li-ion and doesn't this add to its "not ready for prime time" status?

jfaddams, recycling raises two important questions. The first question is "Can a given battery be recycled to prevent environmental damage?" The second question is "Can the materials recovered in recycling be used to make new batteries?"

Lead acid battery recycling is the one of the most efficient processes around. The numbers I've seen say that over 98% of lead-acid batteries are recycled and the recovered materials are almost always used to make new batteries. So lead-acid makes a strong showing on both questions.

Li-ion battery recycling seems to be more difficult, although there are a couple companies that claim to be able to recycle Li-ion batteries in an environmentally safe manner. Their claims are less clear about recovering materials that are pure enough to use in new Li-ion batteries. Given the purity of the materials that are currently used for Li-ion, my sense is that this will be a tougher nut to crack.

The ultimate answer will come from people who know more about recycling than I do, but I have reservations about whether the lithium in today's batteries can ever be used to make a new battery. In any event, I would expect the creation of an entirely new recycling infrastructure to be expensive.

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