Who doesn’t want a smartphone, laptop, or EV that can charge in minutes? Or a device that holds its charge just as well when it’s 5 years old as the day you plugged it in for the first time? Faster-charging, longer-lasting, and cheaper energy storage options are something that will benefit our daily lives, but unfortunately the reigning battery champ, lithium-ion, leaves something to be desired. Thankfully, there’s a huge number of alternatives or evolutions in the works … so many in fact, that it can be hard to keep track of them all. Let’s take a look at 5 contenders, if they’re overhyped, and when they might end up in our smartphones, homes, or EVs. What does the future look like for us beyond the tried-and-true lithium-ion battery?
I’m fascinated by battery technology because it’s a key component in virtually every piece of emerging tech, from personal devices like smartphones, cameras, and wearables to home energy storage and electric vehicles. A stronger, lighter battery is critical to electric mobility. A highly resilient and long lasting battery is critical for grid and home energy storage, which is of course essential for intermittent renewables like solar and wind. Another important goal is to improve battery supply chains and recycling efforts, which can be partially addressed by the battery technology itself.
I’ve covered a lot of unique batteries this past year with exciting properties. In fact, there’s been so many that it’s made our collective heads spin. A bunch of you asked for a recap and comparison video, so today I want to give you a round-up of the 5 novel batteries to keep an … eye on … in 2023 and beyond.
Before we get into the list, there’s just a few things to keep in mind. First, each of these batteries could have their own video, and in fact, some already do, so I’ll be including links to all of those in the description. For the ones I haven’t done a dedicated video on yet, drop a comment for which ones you’d like to see. Second, this isn’t a comprehensive list of every battery technology out there (that would be an absurdly long and boring video). Last thing you should know: these aren’t ranked by importance or viability.
Let’s kick things off with our baseline for comparing everything else against: lithium-ion. To be specific, NMC lithium-ion batteries.
Baseline: Lithium-ion (NMC)
So, why is lithium king? As the lightest metal on the periodic table, and among the most eager to shed its electrons, lithium makes a great battery. 1 They’re relatively lightweight, charge quickly, and have both a good energy density and cycle life. There’s several different ways to formulate the chemistry of lithium batteries, but we’ll focus on nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) because of its great all around stats.
Even within the high-performing lithium-ion battery family, NMC batteries are cheaper and more energy dense than its peers.2 It has a very good specific energy (energy density) between 150-250 wh/kg in most cases.3 4 5You can also count on NMC batteries for great performance, with a cycle life of around 1000-2000 cycles,6 7 and a charging C-rate of around .7-1C and a discharge of 1-2C.8
In case you don’t know what a C-rate is, it’s a relative metric on how fast a battery can be fully charged or discharged. A battery’s fully charged capacity is commonly rated at 1C, which means that a 1Ah battery should provide 1A for one hour. You can apply this to how fast a battery charges and discharges. For instance, a C-rate of 1C means it can go from 0 to 100% in one hour. A C-rate of 2C is twice as fast, while a .5C would be half as fast.
When you take into account the long history of lithium-ion batteries with their proven reliability and performance, it’s easy to see why lithium-ion NMC is truly the battery to beat.
So who can take on the heavyweight battery champ? Our first contender who’s entering the ring…
1: Solid State
Here’s a battery that’s been heavily hyped for a long time. Solid State batteries, which replace the liquid electrolyte with a solid one (ie. glass or ceramic), are appealing because they seem to solve so many issues with lithium-ion, while eternally being just a few years away from commercialization. These batteries have a … solid … energy density of 250-300 Wh/kg and some reports up to around 500 Wh/kg,9 and a healthy 5,000 cycle life (depending on the charge and discharge rate). Some recent findings on glass batteries indicate the possibility of a mind-bending 23,000 discharge cycles.10 11 U.S.-based manufacturer QuantumScape has been testing its batteries between a 1C and 4C rate, but don’t have that absurdly high cycle life.12
However, solid state batteries are still expensive to make. These batteries are most likely going to start trickling out into the world in specific consumer electronics and EVs at first, mainly because of the premium price that’ll stick around for some time.10 Nobel prize laureate, lithium-battery father, and glass solid state battery pioneer John B. Goodenough doesn’t think we’ll see these batteries for another five years or so. It’ll be even longer before they’re affordable enough to make it into EVs, where they can really make a difference.10
When you look at the periodic table, you’ll notice that sodium is right next to lithium. Sodium and lithium are atomically very similar, but sodium is far more abundant. Sodium-ion batteries have a great longevity at 2,000 cycles, but that cycle life is still improving.13 14 15 You do have to take this benefit with a grain of salt, though, because sodium batteries lag behind NMC batteries in energy density at only 70-160 Wh/kg. That said, 200 Wh/kg is a real possibility in the future.16
One area where sodium really kills it is cost. For comparison, the price of lithium hydroxide rose from $6,800 in 2019 to $78,032 per metric ton, while sodium hydroxide is below $800 per metric ton16. Sodium shares production methods and components with lithium, which also helps make it cheap and easy to transition to sodium-ion manufacturing.16
While the stats are promising, sodium batteries Wh/kg make them better suited for stationary storage applications at the moment, so I wouldn’t expect these in an EV. At the same time, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see if these batteries can live up to their potential. Developers like Faradion, located in England and Wales, are about to transition from pilot to commercial-scale production. And Chinese battery giant CATL says its sodium-ion batteries should be on the market this year.17
As I’ve covered in a previous video, aluminum-ion batteries are conceptually similar to standard lithium batteries, except that aluminum can theoretically exchange more electrons per ion. More electrons exchanged per ion means a higher energy density and capacity, at least in theory.18
In collaboration with the University of Queensland, Australian company Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG) has developed an Al-ion battery with an energy density of 160 Wh/kg. More recent tests have doubled that figure.19 20 Outside of GMG, statistics show possible energy densities around 200 Wh/kg, cycle lives around 6,000, and a C-rate of 6C (charge/discharge).21 22
Some of the big benefits of aluminum are its price, availability, and ease of recycling. The aluminum and graphene in GMG’s battery in particular are excellent at transferring the heat out and away from the cell. This means less space, energy, and cost around cooling systems. This all comes together to make a very safe, affordable and green battery. GMG’s batteries are currently in their pilot phase, but are ramping up with early partners and are planning on marketing an EV pouch cell in 2024.19
A niobium anode allows this type of battery to sidestep the intercalation problem that stops most other batteries from charging up at a fast rate. In a lithium ion battery, intercalation is the process of moving the lithium ion from the cathode and inserting it into the graphite anode. It’s the reversible process of storing molecules or ions within layered structures. There’s only so fast this process can happen. Niobium’s structure allows for extremely fast changing and discharging, which means that a niobium battery functions more like a capacitor than a traditional battery. It’s actually not that far off from the SuperBattery, a supercapacitor/battery hybrid, which is produced by Skeleton Technologies in Estonia and Germany.
Across the pond, Battery Streak is currently trying to commercialize this technology from its California headquarters. Its battery can achieve an 80% charge in only 10 minutes. That’s C-rate of about 6C! This speed also doesn’t sacrifice much energy density, as these batteries can pack about 140 Wh/kg (with the goal of 180), and last a strong 3,000 cycles. But Battery Streak has tested them at up to 9,000 charge cycles.23 24 25
Niobium batteries can also stay very cool, unlike most other batteries. While a standard battery’s temperature gradient is about 27 C, a niobium battery’s temperature gradient is significantly lower at 8 C.24 So, where’s the downside? Just like any other battery we’ve talked about with a very high charge rate, it’s an infrastructure problem. Even if you put this into an EV, there’s nothing available right now that could charge it at full capacity. Both Battery Streak and CBMM, a Brazilian company specializing in niobium products, are hopeful that commercialization can begin this year or in 2024.
5: Lithium Sulfur
This is a battery that showcases how little tweaks and advances can make a big difference. Lithium sulfur batteries are chemically and structurally similar to our standard lithium-ion batteries. They switch things up by substituting a lithium cathode for a sulfur cathode and a heavy metal anode for one made of lithium.
These batteries have achieved a specific energy of around 443 Wh/kg.26 This is a…shockingly…energy dense battery. But their density comes at a cost, because lithium sulfur batteries degrade like no other. Their chemical formulation makes them susceptible to something called the “polysulphide shuttle,” which sadly is not a type of line dance. It’s an adverse chemical reaction between the polysulfides and the carbonate electrolyte solution, and it can coat the anode and prevent the battery from working very quickly.26
There is hope, though. Researchers at Drexel University in Pennsylvania have successfully bypassed that problem and created a battery with a 4,000+ cycle life.27 As for its tested C-rate, it’s around .5C so there’s some room for improvement there compared to some of the other batteries.28
Drexel’s battery is still in the lab and needs more testing and refinement. Meanwhile, the California-based company Lyten is developing its own version of a sulfur battery with a 1,400 cycle life. It’s currently in the pilot phase, so hopefully we’ll hear more from it later this year.29
This is far from an … exhaustive … list. I could have also included redox flow batteries, iron air batteries, liquid metal batteries, and the SuperBattery developed by Skeleton Technologies that I mentioned earlier. I’ve got videos on most of those, which I’ll list in the description, but the main reason I didn’t include them on this list was some limitations around the use case. Most of them are really meant for grid scale energy storage. These five could potentially end up in consumer electronics, electric vehicles, or home energy storage.
So, what does this all mean? If you’re playing emerging technology bingo, let me give you your free space: there’s never going to be one battery to rule them all. Some batteries might be a viable alternative for EVs, while others are better suited for stationary energy storage, and so on. Truth be told, none of these batteries are likely to dethrone lithium entirely. However, many of them have the potential to complement or supplement lithium in general. A few could even supplant lithium in specific use-cases.
As these battery technologies eventually find their niches and hit their stride, they’ll reduce our dependence on lithium. We’ll be able to save it for just the applications where it can do its best work, allowing us to enjoy its benefits without compromising our march toward a brighter, greener future.
- To The Limits of Lithium ↩︎
- A Guide to the 6 Main Types of Lithium Batteries ↩︎
- Lithium NMC vs LifePO4 ↩︎
- Which Chemistry is Most Suitable for the Electrification of Your Vehicle? ↩︎
- BU-205: Types of Lithium-ion ↩︎
- PNNL – Lithium LFP and NMC ↩︎
- Lithium Battery Cycle Life ↩︎
- Growatt – LFP vs NMC ↩︎
- Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability and Safety ↩︎
- Battery pioneer unveils surprising new breakthrough ↩︎
- Nontraditional, Safe, High Voltage Rechargeable Cells of Long Cycle Life ↩︎
- White paper: A deep dive into QuantumScape’s fast-charging performance ↩︎
- Longer Lasting Sodium-Ion Batteries on the Horizon ↩︎
- A promising new prototype of battery ↩︎
- Life cycle assessment of sodium-ion batteries ↩︎
- Sodium Comes to Battery World ↩︎
- CATL Touts New Sodium-ion Batteries ↩︎
- GMG Aluminum Ion Battery ↩︎
- Introducing an Aluminum-Ion Battery that Charges 60 Times Faster than Lithium-Ion ↩︎
- Developer Of Aluminum-Ion Battery Claims It Charges 60 Times Faster Than Lithium-Ion, Offering EV Range Breakthrough ↩︎
- Aluminum-Ion Battery to Transform 21st Century Energy Storage ↩︎
- Advanced rechargeable aluminium ion battery with a high-quality natural graphite cathode ↩︎
- This Battery Breakthrough Lets EVs Charge in MINUTES ↩︎
- Battery Streak Tech ↩︎
- Carbon coated porous titanium niobium oxides as anode materials of lithium ion batteries for extreme fast charge applications ↩︎
- Flexible High-energy-density lithium-sulfur batteries ↩︎
- Stabilization of gamma sulfur at room temperature to enable the use of carbonate electrolyte in Li-S batteries ↩︎
- A strategic approach to recharging lithium-sulphur batteries for long cycle life ↩︎
- Lyten Launches Lithium-Sulfur Battery Platform ↩︎