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November 27, 2018

The Future of Lithium-ion Batteries and Resource Recovery

Blue lithium-ion batteries
Electric vehicle charging station (Source: FleetCarma)
Since their commercialization in 1991, lithium-ion batteries have made dramatic progress with respect to energy density, battery lifespan, and recharging capabilities. These attributes have enabled the growth of the application of lithium-ion batteries across a broad swath of industries, including stationary energy storage systems, consumer electronics, electrified vehicles, and much more. Driven by end-market demand, incumbent and emerging companies are constantly striving to develop batteries that are safer, have longer cycle and calendar lives, and are more efficient and cost-effective than those in the market today. As illustrated by the chart below, global investment in battery startup and growth-stage companies has grown steadily since 2016. In fact, in the first half of 2018 alone, investors more than doubled the total amount invested in all of 2017.

Despite the constant news flow regarding new battery innovations, energy storage technology advancements typically require long development lead times from concept to full-scale/commercial manufacturing. MIT’s Technology Review highlighted this in an article in 2017, documenting the challenges faced by many clean energy start-ups and growth-stage companies. In the article, Ilan Gur, a co-founder of a battery company that was acquired by Bosch, states “don’t hold your breath for the things that come after lithium-ion. We’re much more likely to ride the lithium-ion cost curve for another few decades.” There are two key drivers for the likely long market life of lithium-ion technology: cost and performance.

The price of lithium-ion battery packs have dropped below $209/kilowatt-hour according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance survey, and some estimates put them as low as $190/kilowatt-hour, with the cost expected to continue falling to below $100/kilowatt-hour by 2025. By comparison, existing competitive alternative energy storage technologies typically have not fallen below the  $200/kilowatt-hour level. Emerging technologies that have improved cost and performance require substantial investments to support R&D and to progress to the economies of scale that lithium-ion batteries continue to benefit from.

Nonetheless, lithium-ion batteries have significant room for improvement. As a result, there are a substantial number of evolutionary and revolutionary advancements to lithium-ion battery technology under development. Alongside, a cradle-to-cradle approach is required to assess the value chain opportunities and challenges that emerge as evolutionary and revolutionary changes progress.

Evolutionary Advancements

Active material advancements are a key focus of the evolutionary shifts in lithium-ion battery technology. For example, the evolutionary advancements in cathodic materials are focused on tailoring lithium-ion batteries for a broad range of applications, while optimizing for key performance indicators such as cost, cycle life, energy density and safety.

The lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) cathode chemistry family was initially commercialized with a 111 composition – 1 part nickel, 1 part manganese, and 1 part cobalt. Since the inception of NMC technology, the reduction of cobalt content has been a key research and development focus, with a focus on reducing cost and reliance on the cobalt supply chain, including cobalt’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) centricity and resulting ethical concerns (for more information, please refer to Li-Cycle’s blog post regarding the cobalt supply chain). As a result, NMC cathode technology has gradually progressed to new stoichiometries/mixes, including 422, 622, and recently, 811 compositions. While commercial use of the NMC 811 cell is not likely to occur for at least 2-5+ years, developers have driven key enhancements through research and development to date, including improvements in cycle life, better capacity retention over the battery lifecycle, and lower production costs.

As evident in the chart below, the NMC cathode chemistry family continues to experience consistent growth, even as key entities such as Tesla have prioritized the lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA) chemistry in their electric vehicle product segment.

Revolutionary Advancements
​Coupled with evolutionary advancements in lithium-ion batteries, revolutionary shifts are continuously being explored and developed. These changes typically include one or multiple fundamental changes to lithium-ion battery technology, and are focused on enabling step change improvements in key performance indicators such as safety, cost, cycle life, energy density and more. Solid state lithium-ion batteries have often been heralded as one of the key medium term revolutionary shifts in traditional lithium-ion battery technology. With a focus on safety, solid state lithium-ion batteries are focused on replacing the traditional liquid electrolyte with a conductive solid material.  Presently, solid state batteries are primarily utilized in low volume, niche applications, but ongoing development indicates that solid state batteries have the potential to offer higher energy density at a lighter weight, without the thermal runaway issues associated with typical lithium-ion batteries due to the elimination of the liquid electrolyte (Li-Cycle’s blog post regarding lithium-ion battery thermal runaway provides more information). The simplified schematic below provides a comparison of traditional lithium-ion battery technology to an all-solid-state battery.
Solid state lithium-ion technology has drawn the interest of a broad range of global original equipment manufacturers. For example, Toyota has been a vocal supporter of solid-state lithium ion batteries and have publicly stated their aim to commercialize them for electric vehicle use by 2022. Toyota is not alone in their pursuit of solid state technology – in 2013, Apple acquired Infinite Power Solutions, a company focused on the development of solid state batteries.

Moreover, in 2017, UK-based Dyson announced that it would be investing USD $2.7 billion to bring an electric vehicle with a solid-state battery to market by 2020. However, this timeline has recently been brought into question after a new report indicated Dyson’s first generation of electric vehicles may not feature this technology. Nonetheless, various global startup and growth-stage companies globally are pushing ahead to address the challenges with solid-state lithium-ion battery scale-up, including Massachusetts-based Ionic Materials and Colorado-based Solid Power.
Considering the significant timescales involved and investment required from bench and pilot scale to commercial production, it is likely that solid-state lithium-ion batteries will find their first applications in specific segments, such as consumer electronics. As the technology matures and economies of scale are reached, it is then likely that larger format applications such as electric vehicles will follow. Benchmarking with the typical timelines for new/revolutionary battery technology commercialization, coupled with a consideration of the specific opportunities and challenges that have to be addressed for solid-state batteries, it is likely that mass market adoption for solid-state lithium-ion batteries is at least 8-10+ years away.

Advancing Resource Recovery/Recycling Technology and Li-Cycle™

Li-Cycle is on a mission to solve the global lithium-ion battery recycling challenge and meet the rapidly growing demand for critical battery materials. The company seeks to ensure that electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries have a truly positive environmental impact over their entire life cycle.  In turn, Li-Cycle aims to enable the momentum behind the global transition to electro-mobility and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

As lithium-ion battery technology continues to undergo evolutionary and revolutionary changes to further advance the capabilities of the batteries that power our world, Li-Cycle is strategically positioned to provide an end-of-lifecycle recycling solution to all types of lithium-based batteries. In doing so, Li-Cycle aims to create a true closed-loop system, enabling low cost, environmentally sustainable recycling processes and industry-leading safety standards to support the battery industry as it continues to drive global electrification.