A Clean Industry Revolution: The Lithium-Iron-Oxide Battery

Monday, June 4, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Smartphone battery life is an issue that doesn’t appear to fully resolve itself. Lithium-ion batteries are the lifeblood of smartphones and other portable electronic devices.

They are also seen as the lifeblood of storing clean energy and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, thereby alleviating the effects of climate change.

However, performance improvements to the battery have been quite slow despite multiple research endeavors in the field.

In the past few years, the tech sector and universities alike have been trying to figure out how to build better batteries that could help improve battery lifespan and solve the energy storage problem.

And many breakthroughs have been made.

But still, today’s batteries are riddled with problems like high cost, toxicity and a short lifespan.

However, a new breakthrough could make your smartphone and electric vehicle (EV) battery last 8 times longer and could be the first big event in the clean energy revolution.

Let’s recap the breakthrough and discuss the urgent need of a clean energy solution for a sustainable future.

But first, let’s look at what lithium batteries are and why they are in demand.

The Demand for Lithium-Ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries power the lives of millions of people every day. They power laptops, cell phones, electric cars and various appliances in your home. The technology is growing rapidly because it is light weight, has a high energy density and can be recharged.

The battery consists of an anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte and two currents (positive and negative). The anode and cathode store the lithium (a chemical element and silvery-white alkali metal); while the electrolyte transports the positively charged lithium ions from the anode to the cathode, back and forth, via the separator.

That movement of lithium ions create free electrons in the anode which then create a charge at the positive current collector.

The electrical current flows from the current collector through the powered device (cell phone, computer, etc.) to the negative current collector. The separator is what blocks the flow of currents inside the battery.

Watch this video to get a better idea of how it works:

So that’s how the battery works and powers most of your electronics.

There is large demand for the battery, particularly the lithium component of it.

The demand for lithium is largely due to the demand from the battery storage market, and the demand is projected to grow substantially by 2025.

The demand in that market comes from several places: increased usage of mobile devices, electric vehicles, electrification projects in the public transportation sector in countries like China, and the increased demand for residential and power grid storage systems.

An area where this demand is quite predominant is in the transportation sector, particularly in the United States. (The demand is driven by the desire to switch from liquid fuels to clean energy sources.)

Indeed, countries all over the world are more aware of the much-needed shift from a fossil-fuel driven economy to one that is green, sustainable and mitigates climate change.

The climate change issue is more problematic when we look at pollution (both noise and environmental) and traffic congestion caused by private cars which run on petrol and diesel.

Image credit: World Economic Forum

The Demand of Lithium-Ion Batteries in The Transportation Sector

In the US, 90 percent of the transportation sector is dependent on liquid fuels and the majority of that share goes to passenger road transport.

China uses a majority of its liquid fuels to transport goods by road, while Australia and New Zealand use liquid fuels for aviation.

It is no wonder that countries like Denmark, Austria, Japan, Holland, Korea, Spain and Portugal have set targets for EV sales; and that the UK and France want all new cars to be EVs, and to produce no emissions by 2040.

EVs will be a key part of China’s war on pollution and it has been creating policies in accordance. It is projected that 20 percent of cars sold in China will be EVs by 2025.

Car companies like Volkswagen have announced a $10 billion USD investment in China to develop the required technology to manufacture 1.5 million EVs by 2025.

Image credit: Reuters

UBS projects that electric vehicles will make up 16 percent of global car sales by 2025 – a figure that was just 1 percent in 2017. The timeline may be sooner since there are rapid improvements in the technology.

And it is not just vehicles that are going electric. Norway is planning to make all their short-haul flights using electric planes. Companies like Airbus, Rolls Royce and Siemens are collaborating to make hybrid model planes that will make flights as early as 2020.

These types of projects could decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce noise levels by as much as 50 percent.

And it is also not just vehicles and planes that are going electric. Passenger and cargo ships and ferries are developing electric and hybrid alternatives to reduce the dependence on diesel and other fuels.

Since lithium-ion batteries are the go-to technology to make all that happen, there is increasing demand for them and pressure to improve the technology.

The good news is that there have been key improvements to make the batteries cheaper and more efficient. The cost per kilowatt-hour of a battery in a standard EV used to be $1000 in 2010. It is now $130-$150. And the distance one can travel with a single charge is increasing.

And as battery technology improves, the costs associated with charging and maintaining an EV are coming down as well. The cost will in fact fall below traditional car ownership in Europe this year. Nissan projects that the cost of owning a traditional car and an EV will cost the same in 2025.

Image credit: Bloomberg

That means that drivers will be able to buy environmentally friendly cars fairly soon.

That also means that new markets will open up as old ones close (traditional car manufacturing will eventually become obsolete). For example, Saudi Arabia - the oil capital of the world - will lose billions when they no longer need to fuel traditional cars.

Whereas Chile, which has the largest lithium deposits in the world may become the new Saudi Arabia.

Although lithium-ion batteries can help reduce fossil fuel dependence globally and store energy, it still remains expensive for large grid storage.

The race to build the next-generation battery that could last longer and help the world switch over to clean energy is indeed long and arduous. And as Bill Gates explained in his blog, a couple of years ago, storing energy is hard and expensive.

But could a recent breakthrough in the field change that?

The Lithium-Iron-Oxide Battery

A group of researchers at Northwestern University teamed up with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory to develop a rechargeable lithium-iron-oxide battery that can cycle more lithium ions than the existing lithium-cobalt-oxide battery.

The innovative battery works quite well despite using iron, which is an inexpensive metal that has previously failed in batteries, as a key component.

Furthermore, the battery uses oxygen to help create the chemical reaction which researchers had previously thought would cause the battery to become unstable.

What the researchers ended up creating is a battery with higher capacity that could enable smartphones and battery-operated automobiles to last much longer – as much as 8 times longer.

The project is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center program.

As we covered earlier, lithium-ion batteries function by shuttling lithium ions back and forth between the anode and the cathode.

Image credit: Northwestern University

When the battery charges, the ions move back to the anode, where they are stored. The cathode consists of a compound of lithium ions, a transition metal and oxygen.

The transition metal, which is usually cobalt, stores and releases electrical energy when the lithium ions move from anode to cathode and back. The capacity of the cathode is limited by the number of electrons in the transition metal that can take part in the reaction.

Christopher Wolverton, a professor at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and lead researcher of the project, said, “in the conventional case, the transition metal is doing the reaction. Because there is only one lithium ion per one cobalt, that limits of how much charge can be stored.

Caption: Christopher Wolverton
Image credit: Northwestern University

“What’s worse is that current batteries in your cell phone or laptop typically only use half of the lithium in the cathode.”

Wolverton and Zhenpeng Yao, a PhD student in Wolverton's laboratory, made computational calculations to figure out a way to replace the cobalt with iron. Iron is a better transition metal because it is one of the cheapest elements on the periodic table.

By using the same computation, they found the right combination of lithium, iron and oxygen ions to enable the oxygen and iron to concurrently drive a reversible reaction without allowing the oxygen gas to escape.

Wolverton said, “not only does the battery have an interesting chemistry because we’re getting electrons from both the metal and oxygen, but we’re using iron.”

“That has the potential to make a better battery that is also cheap.”

The fully rechargeable battery starts off with four lithium ions instead of one. The current reaction can reversibly exploit one of the lithium ions to substantially increase the capacity of today’s batteries.

The research is however, arguably more embryonic than most other battery advancements. That is because beyond the computer simulations, there are no other indications as to the feasibilities of producing the batteries in large volume, and implementing it in real world use-cases like in smartphones and electric cars.

It may take years to implement.

"Our computational prediction of this battery reaction is very exciting, but without experimental confirmation, there would be a lot of skeptics," said Wolverton.

"The fact that it actually works is remarkable."

They wrote out their experiment and reported results in a paper titled, “Enabling the high capacity of lithium-rich anti-fluorite lithium iron oxide by simultaneous anionic and cationic redox."  The article is published in Nature journal.

Yao and Chun Zhan, a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, are the paper's first authors. Wolverton and Yao led the computational development while Argonne led the experimental section of the research.

The project provides exciting prospects for us all: not only the ability to increase the charge of our smartphones, electronics and cars, but the ability to store clean energy.

It could potentially add fuel to the clean energy revolution underway in places like California.

California and Green Energy

California is leading the United States in renewable energy solutions. You can see the evidence in the enormous farms of shiny solar panels all over southern California and the ginormous wind turbines that dot the landscapes of their major cities.

The state has less ostentatious and less visible investments in renewable energy going on as well. They have lithium ion batteries in warehouses, trailers and industrial parks throughout the state.

Image credit: The Guardian

If all goes according to plan, those batteries will play a significant role in helping California hit its target to have 50 percent of all its electricity coming from renewable energy by 2030.

However, some green energy sources come with inherent challenges. The wind and sun cannot be controlled: they cannot be turned on and off at will. When it is sunny and windy, there will be abundant energy to harness but any excess goes to waste.

And that is where batteries come in to save the day. Batteries allow utility companies to gather the excess electricity and store it for periods when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

In 2013, California launched an aggressive campaign to increase large-scale energy storage with a goal of building 1,325 megawatts of storage by 2020. The state is currently home to a substantial percentage of the United States’ battery storage capacity with projects popping up regularly.

Other states like Oregon and Massachusetts are following suit; while other cities have made commitments to get 100 percent of their electricity from green energy sources.

California’s green energy efforts will provide a case study for policymakers and utility companies across the country, and the world, who hope to use more renewables. Indeed, every state and country that is looking into renewable energy solutions is looking to California as a test case to see what works, what doesn’t and how to tweak it.

Lithium-Ion Batteries Change the Power Sector Completely

Batteries will also revolutionize the power sector as homeowners and businesses install their own batteries. Battery usage in homes, offices and commercial buildings allow people to save electricity collected by solar panels for use at times when electricity prices go up.

A Deloitte study reports that 25 percent of businesses with more than 250 employees have already deployed batteries to help with their electricity management and conservation efforts.

Analysts project that interest in batteries could increase when regulatory changes that motivate battery owners to sell back stored electricity when the demand is high takes effect.

Batteries in electric cars will also have some effect on the electric grid as automakers are expanding their offerings. Some experts say that the impact will both pressure and help utility companies to manage their electricity supply.

The pressure is from the fact that vehicles are creating a new demand for energy. However, batteries in those vehicles could act as storage units of their own to offer more flexibility.

For example, the largest battery in a Tesla can store enough energy to power up a home for three or more days.

So utility companies are implementing programs that encourage more people to buy electric cars; and for electric car owners to charge their cars when there is a surplus of power on the grid.

But one of the biggest questions for energy storage pertains to how much the market will grow in the coming years. And what that market will look like and where it will go.

Will lithium ion batteries remain the best way to store electricity? Energy storage alternatives like molten salt and hydrogen storage have gained substantial investment in the past few years.

Just like photovoltaic solar panels, the cost of lithium ion batteries has gone down in recent years which signals that the market will experience continued growth. And the costs could go significantly lower with the creation of a lithium-ion-oxide battery.

Perhaps even cheap enough to use in places like Africa, where electricity demand is high but supply is low due to costs, infrastructure and institutional structures.

Could the Lithium-Ion-Oxide Battery Be a Game Changer for Africa?

More than 600 million people in Africa are living without electricity.

Fewer than 20 percent of Africans were connected to a power grid in 2012; and that was despite a modest increase from 32 percent to 35 percent between 2010 and 2012.

The rate of electrification does seem to be growing at a slower pace than the rapid population growth on the continent. (Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population yet it accounts for only 4 percent of the global energy demand.)

In fact, The World Bank reported that Sub-Saharan Africa is the least electrified continent in the world. And 40 percent of Sub-Saharan countries that were surveyed haven't taken any policy measures to increase energy access.

Image credit: Bloomberg

Although there have been many calls for Africa to adopt the use of solar and wind power for renewable energy. The calls have mostly gone unanswered.

The numbers are dismal for the continent. But could lithium save it?

It appears so, on paper.

Lithium-ion batteries that can store energy for longer, and for half the current cost, could spur an energy revolution that could transform Africa's power supply. It could enable millions to leapfrog from absolutely no electricity straight to renewable forms of power.

Furthermore, with the possibility that lithium energy presents to be completely off-grid, it could help disconnect everyday life in Africa from the political sphere. (Traditionally, there is a relationship of bartering between the government and its people. Political support is exchanged for roads, schools, water, electricity and security.)

Perhaps, what is most surprising, is that a number of African countries have large deposits of lithium.

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium while South Africa, Mali, Namibia, and Congo all contribute to the world lithium market.

The Bikita Mine in Zimbabwe has over 11 million tonnes of lithium. Yet, Zimbabwe is experiencing huge power deficits.

Africa certainly has the potential to generate enough power to meet demands of  both residential and power grid storage systems, especially in rural areas. So why aren’t they using it to supply and store energy and shatter their dependence on fuelling generators?

Perhaps because, in many countries across the continent, there is a lack of funding, technical skill and institutional will in developing the energy sector.

But without access to energy, it will be hard for Africa to grow at a sustainable rate. Therefore, investing in energy solutions for the continent is mandatory.

The teams at Northwestern and Argonne are not yet done working on their battery. Wolverton has filed a provisional patent with Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures office and his team intends on testing other compounds and materials to see if they can match or improve outcomes.

If they do, we could see a wider range of cheaper and more efficient batteries that could help countries, in places like Africa, to sustainably, affordably and cleanly power their lives.

Wrapping Up

We typically think that technology is all about devices and gadgets. But those plastic and glass gadgets are nowhere near as important as the batteries that power them.

That is why there is so much hype and innovation in the race to build a better battery.

The breakthroughs we hear about constantly are real. But we just have to wait and see if the increasing gap between a breakthrough and its adoption will narrow in the coming years.

So it might be a little while longer for the clean industry revolution to find its voice.