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Battery Materials Market to Swell, No Thanks to Lead

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Lead metal is about to go the way of so many pop stars: out of the limelight. It’s had a good long run as the material of choice for batteries, but new materials that allow for faster charging, lighter weight, and higher energy density are poised to be the moneymakers of the world battery materials market in coming years. According to a report released this week from research firm Freedonia Group, lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride batteries — increasingly being used for consumer electronics and cars — will drive three years of growth for the battery materials market amid a gloomy outlook for “more mature and outdated” battery types such as lead acid and zinc carbon. Freedonia’s analysts anticipate world demand for materials used to make batteries will rise 3.9 percent per year to $22.8 billion in 2012.

“A major shift is under way in the market for lithium chemicals,” the firm writes, and companies in India, Indonesia, South Korea and especially China stand to see the most growth as a result. The outlook through 2012 isn’t as rosy for North America and Western Europe, Freedonia says, since their battery markets are more mature and dependent on lead, which is expected to have slumping prices in the next few years.

North America, however, could still see some bright spots — largely thanks to entrepreneurial activity. Freedonia expects the region’s nascent advanced rechargeable cell industry — an area increasingly populated with startups, including Seeo, Boston-Power, Z-Power and ActaCell — and production of batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles to present opportunities for growth.

Despite Freedonia’s dim outlook for lead, some companies think there’s still room for innovation with the material. When we looked at whether lead-acid batteries can compete in an increasingly lithium-ion world earlier this year, we spoke with Thomas Granville, the CEO of Axion Power, a Quercus Trust-backed startup working to blend ultracapacitor tech with old-fashioned lead-acid batteries for a lead 2.0 device that could have applications in after-market vehicle conversions and grid buffering.

Even if lead’s star is on the wane, lithium hardly has a lock on the future battery materials market, as Brian Jaskula, a mineral commodities specialist with the USGS told us in January. “Lithium is the element of the month,” he said, “but something else may come along.”