Lithium-ion Battery is Powering the Future

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-Ion batteries.” Their research has made a fundamental contribution to the development of rechargeable batteries that we use in many consumer products. Lithium-ion batteries are also considered a possible solution for the development of electric cars and for the conservation of excess energy produced by renewable sources such as solar energy harvesting. The ideal lithium-ion battery for such applications would guarantee full support for energy harvesting where needed and if available.

John B. Goodenough [left], M. Stanley Whittingham [center], and Akira Yoshino [right] (Photo: IEEE Spectrum)

The study and research activities began as early as the 70s with the research of Stanley Wittingham, who developed the first electric battery that used lithium. One of the first big companies to try alternative solutions was Exxon, a large US oil company interested in diversifying its activities in view of a future without oil. Whittingham studied some superconducting materials and evaluated how their electrical conductivity changed if ions were added. Subsequently, with the contributions of John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino, the technology was perfected, offering a huge impact on rechargeable devices (figure 1). In 1985, Yoshino created the first real lithium-ion battery for commercial uses, and that made of the so-called petcoke, a derivative of the carbon able to insert the ions even more efficiently.

The physical characteristics of lithium-ion battery have allowed the development of the high-tech world, especially in the wearable medical field, with the increase in the market of new portable solutions in a new real-time health ecosystem.

Figure 1: The lithium-Ion battery developed by Whittingham [Source: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences]

Many advantages make lithium-ion the best partner for the traction of industrial machines — starting with its high energy density, which makes this technology the best possible choice, especially where space is limited. A lithium-ion battery with which features of fast charge, 100% safe and with an energy density higher than current devices, will be an important technological breakthrough, in a world that promises the boom of zero-emission cars and electrochemical storage systems in our society. There is space to be improved, and many investments are entering the automotive and industrial markets.

The lithium battery can be recharged at any time, without decreasing its capacity and duration. Even the autonomy is often one of the most important factors in the choice of the battery, thanks to the low self-discharge, it guarantees a very valid ally. Finally, compared to other technologies, the useful life of lithium batteries is extremely long.

Unlike traditional batteries, lithium-ion batteries have, in addition to lower toxicity of contents, also a longer duration and can be reused in new ways: as a backup, for example, for small residential energy systems, or as a resource for time-shift management. 

Many automotive companies are investing billions of dollars to increase energy capacity by drastically reducing costs. Increasing power density, durability, costs, charging time, and safety are the main challenges that researchers will face in the coming years. The management of the charge level will make heat management efficient, avoiding explosions or deformations. Lithium-ion batteries can be improved with new electrode materials: for example, by using graphite.

Tesla is developing its lithium-ion batteries and systems to produce them in large quantities. Tesla could optimize the batteries specifically for their cars, thus improving crucial aspects such as durability, autonomy, and acceleration. The acquisition of Maxwell some time ago could serve as a push to proceed with the research and dissemination of optimized batteries. It is necessary to have more funds and human resources to achieve improvements in terms of energy capacity and a significant reduction in costs.

The research is focused on the integration between superconductors and traditional lithium-Ion batteries, especially in the supply of large amounts of energy in a short time. Among the batteries of the future alternative to the current lithium-ion batteries with liquid or polymeric electrolytes, there are solid-state lithium batteries. The goal is to obtain improvements in terms of energy capacity and costs.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio is power electronics editor and European correspondent at AspenCore and editor of Power Electronics News.