Lithium-ion batteries and other electricity storage news

New Scientist looks at the state of play in battery storage (paywalled)

The momentum at present is with lithium-iron batteries, which are being used in devices from mobile phones to electric cars. Since the technology was commercialised in 1991 its performance has improved immensely – design tweaks have tripled the energy stored in a given volume.

Making the batteries is now a $15 billion industry, which Tesla is about to take to a whole new level by building a “Gigafactory” just outside Reno, Nevada.

    By 2020, the company plans to produce as many lithium-ion batteries annually as the entire world produced in 2013 – enough for a fleet of 500,000 electric cars – and with a 30 per cent reduction in production cost per battery.

The Model S Tesla electric car:

    is powered by thousands of small lithium-ion batteries arrayed between the car’s axles. It can go from zero to 95 kilometres an hour in 3.1 seconds, and can travel about 430 kilometres on a single charge, although charging it can take many hours.

The following graphic illustrates the growth of lithium-ion batteries in context this century:


A small start-up company, 24M, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has invented a new process which they claim will cut the cost of lithium-ion manufacturing in half.

Nevertheless the technology has limitations. One is that the batteries can be a fire hazard if their cells get overcharged. Also lithium-ion batteries are approaching fundamental electrochemical limits on the density of energy they can store. Thirdly, the end of the road in cutting costs is in sight. Real competition for petrol will most likely come from a new generation of batteries. You need something that can charge up in minutes and run for 500 miles.

One alternative is the lithium-sulphur battery:

    that stores and releases energy by forming and breaking chemical bonds, instead of slotting ions into structural gaps. These batteries are less prone to catching fire, and although they’re not yet commercially available, they have demonstrated energy densities three times those of the best lithium-ion batteries.

There is a fair amount of lithium in the world, but 23% of it is in Bolivia, which won’t allow mining unless the subsequent manufacturing is done there also. So far no-one has taken the bait.

Bolivia's salt flats
Bolivia’s salt flats

Lithium-ion is starting to break into the large storage systems needed for grid electricity. California, where 1.3 gigawatts of storage in the grid by 2022 has been mandated, is planning the largest battery ever built, which will be capable of delivering 100 megawatts of power for four hours, enough to supply 80,000 average homes. It will be lithium-ion.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that lithium-ion will solve the problem of grid storage. For example, it has been calculated that to run Nova Scotia Power for 24 hours would take the energy storage capacity of every battery made worldwide this year – and then half as much again. The solution may lie in every home having its own storage, such as the Tesla Powerwall.

One alternative to lithium is magnesium. Magnesium ions have two positive charges compared to lithium’s one, doubling their capacity to store energy. Other materials are being scoured systematically, with 16,000 having been tested computationally. One researcher is being distinctly cagey, saying only that his lab is working on a system that uses materials far more common than lithium.

    “If I tell you I can develop a battery that can be charged in 15 seconds and last one week, you’d be happy,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing.”

So while the momentum is currently with lithium-ion, chances are we’ll go on to something else. Perhaps Bolivia’s salt flats will stay where they are.

26MW solar farm & battery set for construction in Northern QLD

Cooktown (not Cook Town) is an isolated town of about 2,300 population, 327 km north of Cairns, located right at the very northern-most fringe of the east-coast National Electricity Market grid.

    Lyon Infrastructure Investments announced that it expects to commence construction on a 26MW solar PV farm plus 5MWh battery system near Cooktown in the fourth quarter of this year.

    David Green, a Partner at Lyon Infrastructure, explained to Climate Spectator that their project was at a very advanced stage in commercial negotiations and he was confident they would finalise financing for the project within a few months. He said that they had spent almost two years trying to progress the project during the period when the future of the Renewable Energy Target was uncertain due to the Abbott Government’s decision to review the scheme, but this was now behind them.

The plan is use a 5MWh lithium-ion battery from Samsung which has a rated maximum output of 1.4MW to supply electricity for up to 3 hours.

The facility will be subsidised, essentially by other electricity users in Queensland, but is part of a learning experience to supply remoter settlements around the state.

Norway looks at pumped storage for Europe

Europe has 400 million people in 24 countries connected to a single grid, with power surpluses from one country being exported to neighbours or imported as national needs change. Norway has 937 hydropower plants, which provide 96% of its electricity.

The prospect of using pumped storage in the Norwegian system to even out power supply in the rest of Europe has one major problem – the tunnels are so long that it takes too long for the stored water to reach the turbines.

A study has now been looking at the possibility of creating sealed surge chambers in rock close to the turbines so that the power can be activated immediately.

21 thoughts on “Lithium-ion batteries and other electricity storage news”

  1. People keep going on about battery charging rates. However, if you want to charge a 7.7kWh battery in 3 mins you need a system that can handle 150 kW.
    I think pure electric cars make sense for the daily commute but installing enough battery power to travel hundreds of km on rare occasions just doesn’t make sense at current battery costs.
    On the domestic scene batteries may make financial sense if they are being used to provide power to cover the evening power surge. However, providing enough storage to cover a run of cloudy days is a lot of capital for not much useage.

  2. Lithium-ion battery technology has a long way to go. We have numerous examples of them catching fire including on aircraft, thereby grounding entire fleets. London’s lithium-ion battery buses have been an almost complete failure.

    Also note that battery testing is no longer as stringent as it once was, for instance the nail puncture test is no longer used. A terrorist with half a brain and an ounce of mischief could create quite a riotous explosion with these things.

  3. Graphene is the frontier in this area I recon.
    Big things happening with it, and 3D printable ( also a technological infant )

  4. Yes graphene may well have a future. Another interesting option developing rapidly and suited to site storage is the flow battery.
    Apologies for offering a Wikipedia source but it has a good graphic that is worth a thousand words.
    Flow batteries can be fully discharged and do not have the heat issues of Li batteries.
    Karen is right, there is still a lot of work to do on lithium. It is not a plentiful substance nor is it renewable. But a group of PhD students in Melbourne have worked out a way to recycle ” used” lithium. Good for them-

    Lots more to come I think for both commercial and domestic power storage. Some serious policy issues for the current power suppliers/distributors/governments.

    Something else that gets little attention is the aging of our coal-fired generators. At some point (Anyone have insight on a time?) they will be un-economic for a number of reasons. The cost of power produced by new (coal fired) power stations will be much greater than from the ” written off” assets currently in use. This will place more pressure on suppliers and more support for renewables and local storage.

  5. Coal fired power plants will last for yonks provided that normal maint schedules are followed. However, over time a power station will become less competitive compared to more modern coal fired power and renewables. Apart from shutting down due to reducing competitiveness many coal fired power stations shut down because they were built for a particular source of coal (which has run out) or because of pressure from the locals who don’t like living near a coal fired power station.

    It is worth noting that this is the first year when investment in renewables has exceeded investment in fossil fired power.

  6. Thanks John
    I think the coal burners are under social and increasing political pressure to wind their emissions back which is doubtless an increase in costs.
    I’m not sure about how many coal burners have shut down, but I think the last of the South Australian ones are gone, and some of their gas turbines as well. Queensland cut back its gas use when the export price of gas earned them more money than generating power would. They honour their purchase contract but on-sell the gas for export. I suppose they substitute coal to produce power demand not met by gas, even though gas was usually used to serve peak demands.

  7. Rooftop solar did a lot of damage to the peaking power industry – this is what is ignored by those that claim solar has pushed up power prices.
    The older, smaller coal fired power stations are better at handling changing demand than the bigger, newer ones.

  8. Just a few idle thoughts:
    1. Everyone seems obsessed with building better batteries but how much effort is put into designing devices that need far less power? What about spinoffs from the various space programs. What about reducing friction losses? What about advances made in the understanding of insulation and microclimates in dwellings?

    2. Glad to learn that so much effort is being put into finding alternatives to Li-ion. (Though I have joined the stampede and changed my power tools to Li-ion ones). My curiosity has been sparked by mention of Mg-ion. Wonder if anyone has busied themselves revisiting the old Ni-Fe system with a fresh outlook?

    3. Correct me if I am wrong but I thought the next biggest supply of Lithium to Bolivia (apart from what’s in the sea) was in Afghanistan.

    4. Inland Australia doesn’t have Norway’s wealth of hydroelectric power but there is a goodly supply of really warm sunshine. Wonder if that sunshine could be used to melt a metal in daylight hours and then use the cooling of it to produce electricity at night?


  9. GH: Sorry. No data.
    GB: In theory Aluminium based batteries will give better storage than lithium because Al is trivalent. Problem is that no one has worked out how to make then rechargable.

  10. John D.: Thanks for the link. Use of Ammonia sounds interesting.

    If Aluminium batteries are cheap enough and can be recycled without serious environmental and financial costs, would they have to be rechargeable? I’m thinking along the lines of South Australia’s bottle recycling system.

  11. JD & GB: Re Al batteries, you might find this interesting: I have not read the full article, but here is a link to a more chatty description of the Al battery.

    It sounds good and the possibility of scaling to grid application is mentioned. The recharge times are amazing but as JD mentioned earlier the charger would need to have massive capacity when scaled to grid sizes.
    Worth noting to that Al is one of the most abundant materials on earth and already we are in Oz, recycling around 25% of Al.

  12. No worries Jumpy. Under the terms of the FTA, governments will have enhanced powers to ” call in” projects and remove them from the normal checks. Projects set to be scrutinised will be hived off to FTA associates and all impediments, real or imagined will be swept away. Labour will be outsourced to contractors who will be empowered to recruit overseas staff when suitably trained and qualified staff are unavailable locally.

    On a more serious note, storage options are becoming more visible. Ergon, who supply about 90% (geographically) of power in Queensland is developing a policy that somehow embraces the new paradigm rather than oppose it. I suspect other utilities are also doing that because some are now offering battery storage to their clients.

  13. Thanks a lot for those links, Geoff. Voltage difference – 0.55V through to 2.0V per cell – isn’t an insurmountable problem; though the owners of perfectly good but [stranded 14.5V, 18V, 20V or 32V tools/appliances might get a bit peeved.

    I was going to say something about noticing that most of the Stanford team were beneficiaries of The Asian Century but if I did so, Jumpey would only dong me over the head with it for my opposition to this born-loser FTA that is being foisted onto us now. 🙂

    I’m wondering if relatively large, stationary power suppliers, larger than a single household solar panel set, could use electricity storage devices that operate at way above or way below ambient temperature. Almost everything I have seen about batteries seems to assume they will be working in a range of, say, – 10 degrees C to +50 degrees C. That’s fine for cars and for office, household and personal devices – but does that exclude potential systems that might operate at, say, – 90 degrees C. or , say, + 1200 degrees C?

    I can envision a solar or wind system in which part of the electricity generated could be spent on keeping the batteries or other storage devices at an appropriate operating temperature way outside the human comfort range. At first glance, such a system might appear quite wasteful but if the overall cost of generating electricity worked out to be much lower than rival systems then that would be an acceptable waste/inefficiency. Don’t worry, I don’t have any ambitions of winning a Nobel Prize for the idea: I thought of how the seemingly “inefficient” steam-powered sugar mills ran very well on bagasse, the fibrous part of sugar cane after most of the juice containing sugar had been repeatedly crushed out of it. There are probably many other examples of waste heat or waste material being used to drive a production process.

  14. GB: I dunno that Jumpy would be all over you, his call :). He makes quite original and thoughtful comments. Sometimes he is too succinct perhaps, leaving the B/S to people like me.

    Stranded tools – I don’t think so. I have no Li tools but lots of Ni-cad that has been supported since Li came to pass. As a matter of interest, Edison was developing Ni-cad for Fords EV car before his battery factory mysteriously burnt down.

    Operating temps will have an effect on battery performance either operationally or longevity-wise. It’s not an area I have much technical knowledge in. But I expect that for the most part, batteries are used in the ” normal” range of temps where homo sapiens are wont to live.
    You are right about some power being diverted to self-maintain a system. I think an example would be cold climate wind turbines (e.g. Denmark) where heating is needed to maintain some part of the system.

    Sugar mills in NQ have been using bagasse for years to fuel their boilers albeit supplemented by oil as required. One mill (Mackay?) continues to generate power to the grid by burning its stockpile of bagasse and bio-fuels after the harvest ends. A problem some mills have is that their boilers are many decades old and relatively inefficient. Low capital expenditure has been linked with the seasonality of the harvest, unreliability of sugar prices and maybe a lack of foresight. But the old boilers are at best (I think) around 80 % efficient, well short of what is possible. Worth noting too is that they generate a lot of power and need to report that power to the government gods. And they get about 6 cents/KWh for their excess.
    I’m not sure about the emissions from mills. I see one mill often and the plume of dark smoke makes me wonder how their numbers stack up. Maybe I should put a VW sign on the gate?

  15. GB sodium suplphur batteries have to operate at temperatures above 200 deg C.

    A sodium–sulfur battery is a type of molten-salt battery constructed from liquid sodium (Na) and sulfur (S).[1][2] This type of battery has a high energy density, high efficiency of charge/discharge (89–92%) and long cycle life, and is fabricated from inexpensive materials. However, because of the operating temperatures of 300 to 350 °C and the highly corrosive nature of the sodium polysulfides, such cells are primarily suitable for large-scale non-mobile applications such as grid energy storage.

    The same would apply to other systems based on molten salts. aluminium air batteries are also worth looking at.

    The aluminium-air batteries are strictly for backup. If you want to make long trips often, these batteries should not be used. They just prevent stranding, and facilitate occasional long trips. This is because these batteries’ aluminium electrodes are depleted with use. They have to be replaced more often than conventional EV batteries.
    The aluminium-air batteries have an energy density 100 times greater than that of today’s lithium-ion batteries, and they are also lighter than backup gasoline-fueled generators.
    The aluminium-air battery bank (pack) weighs only 25 kg. Each of the aluminium plates in this battery pack can power the car for 32 km, and the test car has 50 of those plates.

    Almost all the travel the Davidson’s do in our smaller car could be handled by a rechargeable battery able to handle 40 km. The aluminium battery would remove “range anxiety” and may be a cheaper option than hiring a more conventional car for longer trips. Aluminium battery back-up avoids the cost and weight required to give Tesla ranges of several hundred km or provision of a hybrid style back-up motor.
    here for more details and a picture.

  16. Exciting stuff JD. I did not even know that salt could be used as a battery component. I thought it was just used for transporting heat in solar thermal plants.

    The articles that dealt with Aluminum-air storage highlighted the issues with them. But I noticed those articles were several years old. It seems that those issues may have been solved earlier this year. Check the links October 1st above.

    After years of incremental improvements it looks like we are seeing some real break-throughs.

  17. Gh and JD: Glad I called in here. Didn’t know about Sodium-Sulphur batteries; sounds like jolly good fun.

    The other thing that crossed my mind was scale/size. We are so used batteries being between the size of a button to the Olympian weightlifter ones that are used to start earthmoving machinery that I wonder if we might lose sight of the possibilities of stationary batteries the size of a grain-silo.

    Do we necessarily need stored electricity for all our applications. Compressed air can be pretty handy too: take the starter of the Wilga single-engine, high-winged monoplane for example.

    Then there is mechanical storage too – such as in clockwork devices. Wonder if anyone has ever built a huge clockwork device with a geared winder? Just another idle thought. And no, I’m not seeking perpetual motion; at least not this evening. 🙂

  18. GB: In terms of large scale energy storage the currently working systems that I am aware of are:
    1. Pumped storage (excess power is used to pump water up to a dam and then run back down to a generation plant when the power is needed. )
    2. Molten salt. Solar tower power plants like the ones used in Spain and elsewhere use the sun to heat molten salt which can be stored in very large tanks. The heat from this salt is used to create steam which drives a standard steam powered generator. A back-up molten salt heater allows the generator to provide power 24/7 if required.
    3. Batteries. King Island had a large flow battery at one stage.
    Other options are being investigated but I have yet to find a wind up toy like system.
    In terms of house sized energy storage systems based on phase change materials are used to store heat or cold without requiring a lot of space.
    In terms of transport batteries are OK under some circumstances but they are not going to wok for things like intercontinental travel. If we are unwilling to put up with losing agricultural land for biofuel production commercially available technology is available that will allow renewable energy to be converted transportable fuels such as liquid ammonia and jet-A fuel.
    In the past special high speed flywheels were used to run buses.

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