It is important to recognize the lead of China and, to some extent, South Korea. It will take some time to build scale and supply chains and make them as efficient as they are today in China.
Most batteries are currently used in electric vehicles. What happens next?
Right now, obviously, the transition to vehicles is the majority of the volume. But soon after comes energy storage and grid storage. The North American market is evolving incredibly quickly, both in dealing with network bottlenecks and in handling the increasing amount of intermittent energy produced by wind and solar energy.
The more renewable energy there is, the more electric vehicles there are, the more the industry is transformed (furnaces, ovens and all kinds of industrial heat production), which will lead to many energy storage needs. In almost every area where we see combustion engines today (forklifts, material handling, underground mines, marine areas), we see plans for electrification. We underestimate the speed and importance of energy storage to balance the market.
And what happens next when it comes to battery technology? Is lithium-ion poised to dominate?
The core battery technologies being developed today (whether lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt oxides, lithium ion phosphates) and the massive amount of infrastructure in currently invested in will provide a baseline for long-term needs.
You will see continued strong technological evolution, but you must integrate any technological developments into the infrastructure being built.
The only thing I really see emerging is basically batteries where you use sodium instead of lithium as the energy transmitter. You’re not going to get the energy densities that you can get with high-grade nickel, but you can essentially develop batteries that have very, very good thermal capabilities, that have very good cyclability, and that don’t contain lithium , nickel or cobalt. I see this as a very big opportunity for the future evolution of network storage.
With metal prices very high at the moment, we are also seeing very strong growth in lithium-ion phosphates.
They fill a need because they are very profitable. But they present some challenges: they have a fairly large carbon footprint and, because of their content, they are not naturally as attractive to recycle as high-nickel batteries.
So there is a big risk that unless we start to see some pretty strict regulations around this, we will face a challenge with the end of life of LFP batteries coming onto the market. The LFP segment is experiencing really strong growth at the moment.
With sodium-ion, you can develop a really, really durable battery, both because of the abundance of these metals and their carbon footprint, and because you can use alternative materials for the anode. You can make hard graphite from wood fiber, or we have seen samples of hard graphite made from coconut fiber. So the ability to build a truly sustainable setup with sodium ions is definitely there.
Join Northvolt and our world-class lineup of speakers at WIRED Impact on November 21, at Magazine London, as we examine the opportunities for organizations to innovate and tackle humanity’s most pressing challenges. Buy your tickets now: events.wired.co.uk/impact