Lack of demand is already causing problems for some lithium-ion battery manufacturers. In recent years, two lithium-ion battery makers -- A123 Systems and Ener1 -- have filed for bankruptcy protection. And in February, a US Department of Energy investigation discovered that idle employees of LG Chem Ltd. were playing board games, watching movies, and volunteering at local non-profit organizations during work hours, after the company took more than $150 million in federal funds to help build its battery cell manufacturing plant. The battery manufacturer was subsequently asked to repay $842,000 in taxpayer funds.
Experts say the situation has been getting worse for lithium-ion, following the massive public attention of overheating incidents on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. “The glamour has definitely faded for lithium,” Cole told us. “The Boeing situation was the crowning blow.”
To be sure, lithium-ion will continue to play a role. Ford Motor Co. announced late last year that all its new hybrids would migrate to lithium-ion. And Pike Research declared earlier this year that the emergence of plug-in hybrids would boost lithium-ion sales over the next few years. ”Sales of lithium-ion batteries will be better than they have been,” analyst Dave Hurst of Pike Research told us. “But they still won’t be very good.”
The question now is how much of the hybrid market will still belong to lithium-ion. Most industry analysts still expect plug-in hybrids to be the province of lithium-ion batteries. However, the low end of the hybrid market -- mild hybrids and start-stop micro-hybrids -- will be a mix, with lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride, and lithium-ion grabbing chunks of the market.
”Lithium-ion is still a very solid player,” Cole said. “But now we’re entering a more realistic period with respect to batteries. The hype is over. The cost is going to have to come down now."
Weight is a major issue. I have an electric mower that I modified so I could run from a battery pack and charge it with solar panels. Yes, a green lawn mower. It cost more than I will ever save in fuel, and the original 17AH SLA cells only last about three years. I repacked the mower with a 10AH NiMh that produces the same run time at about 1/3 the weight, a huge savings.
I only have one season in the NiMh pack, so I can't comment on life, but there is one downside. It's very easy to monitor the State Of Charge (SOC) for SLA cells, but impossible with NiMh. Since I charge with solar panels I have no way of knowing how much energy is going into the cells, so I had to add a Coulomb counter to monitor the charge. There are plenty of charge monitors on the market used for model aircraft and the like, but they have quiescent currents in the tens of mA range, not suitable when a cloudy day only yields that much from the panels, so I had to build my own monitor that idles in the uA range. Like I said, I'm never going to recoup the cost from fuel savings, but it's been a good learning experience.
So, from what I've learned, SLA is heavy, has a poor service life for a constant draw in the 1/2C range, but is very easy to monitor the SOC. The current NiMh technology is fairly light and handles a 1C draw very well, but you can't monitor the SOC very well.
Lead-acid batteries have lowest energy-to-weight and energy-to-volume designs, making them very big and heavy for the total amount of power that they can put out. But they do have a very high surge-to-weight ratio, which means that they have the capacity to deliver a big jolt of electricity all at once. This feature makes lead-acid battries perfect for applications that need a big, sudden surge of power, such as car starters.
Alternatives to the internal combustion engine. A dressed up older battery technology may help break through the difficulties. Or perhaps something else. So far it looks like lithium-ion will see some challenges.
If they could do something to improve the old technology that would be fantastic. Lead-acid is forgiving and easily remanufactured, but it's also heavy and has a poor life-cycle under constant use. It's great for starting cars, though.
Interesting story, Chuck. I think it's a bit early to count out lithium ion, especially with some new research in different chemistries. But with all the negative publicity and the current limitations of the technology, there is certainly room for another battery chemistry to take its place.
Volkswagen AG is developing a lithium-air battery that could triple the range of its electric cars, but industry experts believe it could be a long time before that chemistry is ready for production vehicles.
California’s plan to mandate an electric vehicle market isn’t the first such undertaking and certainly won’t be the last. But as the Golden State ratchets up for its next big step toward zero-emission vehicle status in 2018, it might be wise to consider a bit of history.
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