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What if Everyone Is Wrong About Lithium Ion Batteries?

Lithium ion batteries are one of the few segments of cleantech that a respected market research firm can say will become a world-leading technology “and achieve 350% revenue growth from 2010 to 2020.”

The 350% comes from the latest report from IHS iSuppli, written by Satoru (Rick) Oyama, and nicely summarized on the company’s website.

The reasons that figure is believable are simple and easy to understand. These batteries already exist! They already work! And soon they will be in electric cars, and everyone expects there to be many electric cars made in the next ten years.

But what if we were to take the longer view and have the technology clock start at 2020 rather than end there. Given that the average car on the road today is 10 years old, we can imagine that all the gas-powered cars being sold this year will be nearing their end-of-life in 2020, and a number of people might choose that year to finally own an electric car. (Though some folks like my mom will still be driving their 2002 Corolla).

In 2020 the auto industry can expect to sell a large number of electric cars. But it might look back to 2011 and question whether trying to optimize an arguably mature technology (lithium ion batteries) was the right thing to do. Apple did not optimize cassette technology to create the iPod, right?

Saying that electric cars will run on lithium ion batteries sometimes sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will run on that technology because that’s what everyone expects. And that’s where the attention goes, and the credibility and therefore, the investments. But lithium ion batteries are expensive, heavy, and don’t have great power density for passenger cars. They need to be monitored to prevent burning and melting, they don’t last as long as the cars do, and they take a long time to charge. Current models don’t perform well in the kind of cold and heat that are common in places like Minnesota and Texas.

Certainly, today’s chemists and engineers and materials scientists have room to improve lithium ion batteries. They can be made of many different materials, and can be put together in different ways. Parts can be made smaller and lighter over time with nanotechnology. By 2020, they are likely to be quite different than li-ion batteries today, save for having lithium be the source of all those electrons.

But there are other energy storage technologies out there. And they seem “out there” now, in 2011, but think of all the people who will buy their first electric car in 2020. Maybe it should have a flow battery, or an air battery or a supercapacitor in it. Or some combination of technologies.

While the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf drivers start silently cruising the street where you live looking for an available 220 outlet and a Starbucks where they can hang out for three hours, you can gaze at your gas-fueled vehicle and – with mind wide open – imagine what new technology could power your next car purchase.

1 Comment

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  • Feb 21st 201321:02
    by Me

    Your article is eerily prescient. Now in 2013, with Boeing plagued with its over-heated Li-Ion batteries and Airbus dropping Li-Ion for Ni-Cd for its unpredictability. Li-Ion technology is doomed the way of the 8-track.

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