Reflections on the commercialisation of science through the lens of lithium battery development
Battery-powered communication connects the world. Most of us can’t get through a day without our laptops, tablets and mobile phones, and we take them so for granted that we rarely think about the science that has gone into their development – specifically the technological progress that allows us to use them anywhere, anytime – the lithium-ion battery.
“My career has been based almost entirely on battery research. I’m writing a personal and technical story about the experience – complete with some intrigue. It’s directed towards anyone really but I’m hoping specifically that it will motivate students to engage in science and engineering,” said Michael Thackeray of the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division, Argonne National Laboratory, USA.
Thackeray’s project while at STIAS is to write an autobiographical narrative about the research and development of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – “from a research curiosity to practical reality”. He hopes to relate some of the practical challenges involved in moving science from the laboratory to commercialisation.
“The story is personal,” he said, “one that is based on decision making and the consequences of those decisions on the course of a career in a highly competitive scientific and technological world – about big changes and events when life and times demanded them.”
“The introduction of lithium-ion technology in 1991 coincided with the onset of the consumer electronics revolution and the need for compact and light batteries to power cell phones and laptop computers. Now, 27 years later, lithium-ion batteries have become the major power source for many other applications, including electric and hybrid electric vehicles, defence and space equipment, medical devices, stationary energy storage for back-up power in the telecommunications industry, power tools and toys. They have transformed society by accelerating the ease of communication and the pace of life in an expanding global village,” he said.
“Batteries are also an extremely profitable commodity – in 2014 the world market was worth $83 billion. By 2019 it is predicted to be approximately $120 billion. And lithium-ion batteries specifically account for an estimated 40% of the market share.”
Thackeray’s research started in South Africa at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1973. It was a very different world with the oil crisis (when the oil price rose from $3 to $12 a barrel) making the search for alternate energy sources a stark reality for the first time.
“In answer to the call for electric vehicles to counter the oil embargo and crisis in the Middle East during the mid 1970s, researchers at the CSIR initiated a 20-year research programme that led to the discovery of a novel, rechargeable high-temperature sodium battery, and the discovery and design of new materials for ambient-temperature lithium batteries,” said Thackeray.
“The latter work laid the groundwork for implementation and advances in lithium-ion technology that now commands a multi-billion dollar industry.”
“When the cost of oil quadrupled in the 1970s, the search for advanced batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs) and replace the internal combustion engine started in earnest with an expectation that there would be a big potential market for EVs by the turn of the century.”
“We were asked by government and industry (De Beers and Anglo American) sponsors to find a viable system that would meet the stringent requirements of an EV industry. Initially, there were no strings attached to the ideas or systems to be pursued. The outcome of this programme, headed by Johan Coetzer, was hugely successful – largely because our minds were not contaminated by conventional thinking in the battery world – we were able to try something new.”
“Our initial aim was to find a high-temperature system with less corrosion and better safety than existing sodium and lithium technologies – with light, non-toxic compounds and a high energy output. We put the best of the existing sodium and lithium technologies together resulting in the ZEBRA battery in 1981, which was based simply on sodium chloride (common table salt) and metallic iron electrodes. Major advantages of ZEBRA technology included the easy assembly of batteries in a discharged state and significantly improved safety.
“We needed help to take the technology to the next level. So, in 1983, Anglo American established a start-up company, Zebra Power Systems, in South Africa along with Beta R&D in the UK and, later, Daimler Benz in Germany. Politically speaking, it was a difficult time. Due to the boycotts, the collaborative research had to be kept below the radar screen.”
1991 witnessed Sony Corporation’s historic introduction of the first lithium-ion battery products into the market. At that time, the USA and Europe were way behind the game. Since then, the Asian countries Japan, Korea and China have dominated and controlled the world’s lithium-ion battery manufacturing industry. Despite the Asian dominance, lithium-ion technology remains a highly competitive field with huge rivalries. These rivalries plus the cut-throat world of patenting and royalty generation have, at times, led to litigation.
CSIR’s early research in the 1980s and early 1900s led to the development of manganese-based materials for this industry and to royalty generation for the organisation. “However,” continued Thackeray, “although lithium-ion technology is now fairly mature, the batteries are intrinsically unstable with highly reactive and flammable components.”
“The science is ongoing,” said Thackeray. “We need to increase the energy density of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other mobile applications, both by weight and volume, but at the same time find or design new materials to improve performance and reduce safety, flammability and toxicity hazards as well as cost. These improvements would constitute significant technological advances in lithium-ion technology.”
Alternate energy sources needed
“The planet is in peril due to population growth, climate change and humanitarian tensions for a share of resources and quality of life,” continued Thackeray. “In 1900, 600 million tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuels went into the atmosphere per annum, now it’s 10 billion tonnes.” Due to the world’s increasing energy consumption, the average surface temperature of the earth has risen by 1˚ Celsius in the last 40 years.
“We have to keep exploring and improving the capture of energy from renewable sources and energy storage, which are inextricably linked.”
Since 2011, Argonne National Laboratory has assisted the South African Department of Science and Technology in developing R&D strategies in this regard. “There are huge opportunities for South and Southern Africa,” he added. “There is no reason why South Africa cannot provide beneficiated materials for the international lithium-ion battery market, particularly manganese-based materials as South Africa possesses about 80% of the world resources of manganese.” In this regard, a plant was opened in Mpumalanga in October, 2017, to produce precursor materials for the lithium-ion battery industry.
“But,” said Thackeray, “it’s also important that we keep finding new sources of lithium and other pertinent materials, and introduce recycling programmes to ensure that their supply does not run out.”
“It’s never too late to innovate,” he added. “We have to keep finding sustainable solutions for the long-term benefit of the planet.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw