Electric vehicles set to trigger lithium-ion battery boom

16 Aug 2011

Accelerating demand from the electric and hybrid vehicle market, coupled with a decline in pricing, is set to make lithium ion the world’s leading rechargeable battery technology, achieving 350pc revenue growth from 2010 to 2020, according to IHS.

The IHS iSuppli Rechargeable Batteries Special Report is predicting that global lithium-ion battery revenue will grow to reach US$53.7bn in 2020, up from US$11.8bn in 2010. It anticipates that revenue will rise to US$31.4bn in 2015, allowing lithium-ion to surpass the current dominant rechargeable battery technology – lead acid.

Right now, the dominant battery technology used in hybrid cars is nickel-metal-hydride. In 2010, more than 1m hybrids with nickel-metal-hydride batteries were shipped, led by the Toyota Prius.

However, IHS forecasts that shipments of nickel-metal-hydride batteries to the hybrid market will not grow in the future as the use of lithium-ion begins to take off.

In lithium-ion batteries, lithium ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode during discharge, and back when charging. Right now they are commonly used in portable consumer electronics, while they have many future applications for the military, aerospace and electric vehicle sector.

IHS is asserting that the automotive sector will be the leading market for lithium-ion batteries by 2015, surpassing the current top application, notebook PCs. It predicts that notebook PCs and mobile phones will remain major markets for the technology, however, accounting for US$12.3bn in revenue in 2010, up from US$7.8bn in 2010. Other major uses for lithium-ion batteries will be in solar power systems, smart electricity grids and electric tools.

General Motors and A123 Systems battery pack deal

Just last week, General Motors awarded a production contract to A123 Systems, a developer and manufacturer of advanced nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries and systems for its battery packs to be used in future GM electric vehicles in certain global markets. However, the contract won’t cover the Chevrolet Volt – GM’s strategic electric car that is aiming to stand shoulder to shoulder against rival Toyota Motor Corp’s petrol-electric hybrid, the Prius.

Shares in A123 Systems soared last Thursday after the deal with GM was revealed, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.


CODA automotive e-car. Image courtesy of CODA

Meanwhile, CODA, the California-based developer of advanced lithium-ion power battery systems for its all-electric CODA sedan, EV powertrain and stationary energy storage applications, today entered into a Letter of Intent to develop electric vehicles with China’s Great Wall Motor Company, using Great Wall models, for distribution worldwide.

EV cars – fuelling the bulk of lithium-ion sales growth

“Lithium ion at present is much more expensive than alternative technologies, costing two to three times as much as sodium-sulfur, lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable batteries,” said Satoru Oyama, principal analyst of Japan electronics research for IHS.

“However, lithium-ion pricing will decline much more rapidly than the other technologies, coming close to cost parity in 2015, and then becoming the least expensive type of rechargeable battery in 2020. Combined with the inherent advantages of the technology, the increasingly competitive cost of lithium-ion will cause car makers to employ it as their battery technology of choice in future electric and hybrid vehicles.”

Sustainability advantages

Compared with other rechargeable battery technologies, lithium-ion appears to have many advantages, including flexible form factors and lighter weight.

Furthermore, IHS says lithium-ion devices have no memory effect, meaning they maintain their full capacity even after a partial recharge. Lithium-ion batteries are considered by some sustainability experts to be more environmentally safe than other technologies, making these batteries particularly attractive for electric vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Right now, a concern around using first-generation lithium-ion batteries in cars is safety.

Pointing to how there can be a risk of fire using existing lithium-ion battery materials due to the high temperatures involved, IHS says to achieve acceptable safety levels for hybrid and electric vehicle batteries, lithium-ion battery makers must take steps to prevent internal short circuits that can cause external damage. It says these steps include improving control of power generation during discharges and enhancing the management of rapid charging.

Photo: Nissan LEAF lithium-ion battery pack

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic