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Lithium Batteries – the Past, the Present and the Future

A new report by Infotec News editor Simon Guerrier digs deep into the dynamic and often confusing world of lithium and its role in powering vehicles, today and in the future.

Until the 1990s, most large electric and electronic devices were powered by plugging them into the mains. Smaller, portable devices were powered using single-use, disposable batteries. The more power a device needed, the more batteries one required.

The popular adoption of camcorders in that decade presented a new challenge however. They clearly needed to be portable but used battery power voraciously. Early attempts at rechargeable batteries were less than impressive until Sony released the first batteries able to charge and discharge repeatedly. Since then, lithium-ion has been the gold standard for rechargeable batteries.

By 2016, energy density and durability had increased by about three times and the price had dropped roughly by a factor of 10. Two years later, Bloomberg reported that between 2010 and 2018, prices for lithium-ion batteries had fallen by 80% and were continuing to fall.

That attempts would be made to use them to power vehicles was inevitable. Apart from environmental concerns, it’s much less expensive to recharge lithium-ion batteries than to refill a fuel tank. 

While there is a tendency to take this technology for granted and assume it will always improve, will it? How far can it actually advance and what are its limitations?

Simon examines various problems surrounding the use of lithium to power vehicles. He looks at charge anxiety, the up-front cost of battery electric vehicles, the perceived fire risk and reduction in battery capacity over time.

He also mulls over the problems surrounding the use of lithium itself. It’s not exactly a rare commodity but it doesn’t occur naturally in its elemental state and must be extracted from mineral compounds, which can be a costly process that generates carbon emissions. Deposits of lithium are also not distributed evenly: China is thought to have the largest reserves at some 9.2m tonnes. 

The report also takes a very close look at the issue of recycling lithium batteries. In 2022, estimates suggested that just 5% of lithium was being recycled but in April 2023, the UK’s first large-scale lithium-recycling plant opened in April this year, with capacity to process up to 20,000 tonnes of batteries per year.

The report concludes by looking at alternatives to lithium for powering zero emission vehicles. From green hydrogen to other elements that, while not as efficient as lithium are abundant and more readily accessed.

The full report from Simon Guerrier can be read within our premium content portal.

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