Meet the batteries powering tomorrow

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We all use something like a phone, laptop, tablet, or fitness tracker every day. They all require charging and they all contain batteries. The most common of which are lithium-ion; the industry standard. As the lithium used in these batteries is a finite natural resource, this has led to much speculation on if and when we might run out of lithium. This also begs the question ‘what’s next?’ and is anything being done now to prepare for a post-lithium world?

The end of lithium?

Dr Robert Kerr, a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s recently established Battery Technology Research and Innovation Hub (BatTRI-Hub) within Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM), suggests that the end of lithium is not something to be concerned about right now. ‘It’s not a problem yet, we’re more talking 30, 40, 50 years from now that it’s more likely that it (running out of lithium) will be a problem.’

‘Lithium is quite abundant, but if everyone were to use an electric car, every country have its own grid storage and renewables coupled with lithium batteries, there wouldn’t be enough lithium. At the moment it’s just phones and laptops and some cars really.’ The exact amount of lithium reserves worldwide is not known, but Dr Kerr believes we could find more. ‘They always seem to find more oil, so I’m sure they’ll find more lithium, the problem with it is that it’s in parts of the world that can be unstable. Political conflicts in the area could result in a spike in the price of lithium or we might lose access to some reserves altogether.’

Salt batteries?

Given it seems that it could be a while before we have to become worried about the end of lithium, the team of researchers at the BatTRI-Hub are more focused on the next type of lithium batteries, including lithium metals and sodium. At around one thirtieth the cost of lithium, sodium is an exciting prospect for batteries. It’s the next element down on the periodic table, as well as being easier to find, so its use in batteries seems logical. However handling such a reactive material brings with it difficulties. ‘Sodium is a lot bigger and it moves slower. I might be proven wrong but because of that you’ll never be able to store as much per weight as lithium,’ says Kerr. This means you can’t get the same power out of a sodium battery as existing lithium-ion batteries. Meaning that sodium batteries aren’t likely to ever be used for cars, phones, laptops and other applications where size and weight is a top priority. Dr Kerr suggests that where sodium batteries have the biggest opportunity is in grid storage, because being slow and heavy doesn’t matter when you can just make the batteries bigger.

'Lithium is quite abundant, but if everyone were to use an electric car, every country have its own grid storage and renewables coupled with lithium batteries, there wouldn’t be enough lithium'

Dr Robert Kerr,
BaTRI-Hub, IFM, Deakin University

The new metal

Dr Kerr believes that lithium-ion is going to continue to be the industry standard for a few decades. ‘The basic lithium-ion technology hasn’t really changed for the last twenty years. Moving beyond that is lithium-metal, which is a slight variant of lithium-ion.’ Lithium-metal batteries replace one of the graphite electrodes found in lithium-ion with pure lithium metal, which means you can store around five times as much in a battery of the same size. Dr Kerr says these batteries also don’t use any more lithium in production than lithium-ion either. ‘Lithium-metal batteries use the same amount of lithium as current lithium-ion batteries.’ This is exciting news for end users, meaning your smartphone could last five times longer while remaining the same size and weight.

What’s next?

Dr Kerr hopes that his team at BatTRI-Hub can produce something that can become commercially viable in the sodium battery space. ‘The real goal is to develop some kind of battery manufacturing capability here in Geelong.’ Batteries will play such an integral part of energy generation and use going forward, that it makes good economic sense for Australia to be looking to lead the way in this exciting space.

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Dr Robert Kerr
Dr Robert Kerr

Research Fellow (Electromaterials), Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University
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