In Lithium's Long Shadow: Other Battery Tech Is Still Key

Lithium, the key mineral for lithium-ion batteries used in many consumer electronics, computers and upcoming electric vehicles, is a limited resource residing in large quantities below Bolivia’s salt flats (among other places). That fact has helped create buzz about the chemistry, electrifying it with political controversy and fears about “peak lithium” (see our take on the looming lithium squeeze here). But while lithium-ion has seized the limelight of late, it’s only one of several battery chemistries that will have key roles to play in the transition to a cleaner transportation system and power grid.

Lying in lithium’s shadow are technologies such as lead acid batteries, which have a long history in automotive applications and consumer electronics but are getting an upgrade from startups such as Firefly Energy, as well as lithium-air, an experimental technology being backed by IBM. While many automakers now agree that lithium-ion holds the most promise for at least the first few generations of electric vehicles, the risk of having so much attention focused on one chemistry is that it can obscure the need and opportunity for a variety of energy storage technologies — for electric vehicles, hybrids, grid buffering and other smart grid applications.

Given how long this sector has been largely ignored, there’s a lot of room for innovation. Fast-moving companies will be able to snap up funds pouring into the space. “We’ve been looking at the energy storage space for quite a few years,” Peter Wagner, a venture capitalist with Accel Partners, told us for a recent GigaOM Pro article (subscription required) on how to break into the energy storage market. While his team is excited about the opportunity, Wagner says they haven’t seen a play close enough to large-scale deployment to convince them the timing is right for venture capital.

The U.S. government, however, is getting involved big time. It became one of the largest battery investors in the country this year by way of the stimulus package, with some of the biggest awards in the Department of Energy’s recent round of battery manufacturing grant initiative going to lithium-ion battery projects by LG Chem, EnerDel, Saft, Dow Kokam and A123Systems. But significant funds are also going toward nickel-cobalt metal and lead-acid manufacturing under the program.

Nickel-metal hydride batteries have served Toyota and Honda well, so far, in their hybrid models, but they’re expensive. At this point the tech could also face further price increases in the event of a shortage of the metals known as rare-earth elements, brought on through politics or simple resource depletion.

More alternative technologies are also now on deck. Some startups, notably PowerGenix, are banking on nickel-zinc to ultimately replace nickel-metal hydride. An eight-year-old venture based in San Diego, Calif., PowerGenix hopes to eventually market its batteries (so far deployed commercially only for power tool and scooters) for vehicles, but it has no designs on competing directly with lithium-ion — CEO Dan Squiller has told us he expects lithium-ion to dominate the electric vehicle market, while lower-cost, higher-energy density nickel-zinc will be the tech of choice for parallel hybrid vehicles like the Prius.

Computing giant IBM, meanwhile, has taken a gamble on the experimental battery technology lithium metal-air, starting with a three-year, multimillion dollar R&D effort (with several partners) utilizing IBM’s nanotech and supercomputer resources. Ultimately, however, the goal is to commercialize a device with at least 10 times the energy density of today’s batteries.

IBM’s Winfried Wilcke, Senior Manager of Nanoscale Science & Technology, who’s heading up the project, told us recently that lithium air represents “the only system that has a chance to be as good as gasoline” and make a significant dent in transportation fuel.

The research firm Freedonia Group issued a dim outlook for time-tested lead as a battery material earlier this year, but some venture capitalists and entrepreneurs still see room for innovation. David Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust, for example, has backed lead-acid battery startup Firefly Energy (targeting the hybrid market) and lead-carbon battery developer Axion Power, which is working to blend ultracapacitor tech into a low-cost lead 2.0 device that could have applications in after-market vehicle conversions and grid buffering.

As Brian Jaskula, a mineral commodities specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey told us: “Lithium is the element of the month, but something else may come along.”

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