By Neil Gladstone April 26, 2020
By the time Colonel Brent Wilson became base commander at Oahu’s Camp Smith, he’d been deployed in the Gulf and Iraq wars and led numerous defense operations in Kosovo. But the foe he faced at the Hawaiian base was different from any he’d seen on the battlefield as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot. He had to contend with an aging energy infrastructure regularly trampled by tropical weather.
“The whole power grid was going down routinely and put us out of business,” explains Wilson who, at the time, was also part of the team responsible for defense operations throughout the Pacific. “You can’t really have that.”
But the battle against bad infrastructure also had an underutilized ally: Sunlight. Wilson started a campaign to install solar panels and industrial batteries that could keep the vital parts of the operation online when storms hit. That experience eventually helped springboard him into a second career: Selling batteries big enough to power your home off the grid.
The battery boom
The battery market has ballooned in the past several decades and is expected to increase by another 12% in the next five years, according to Mordor Intelligence. By 2025, it will be a $90 billion market. Over the past decade, companies like Tesla, Dyson, and Daimler have all made billion-dollar investments in the industry, either acquiring smaller companies or building new factories. If that classic scene from The Graduate were filmed today, the one-word career advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character wouldn’t be “plastics,” it would be “batteries.”
What will propel all that growth? Lithium-ion battery price decreases, personal electronics, and electric cars churning through them, and, among other factors, more homeowners and power companies looking to store solar and wind energy.
Along with that growth comes a lot of waste. Unfortunately, most batteries wind up in landfills. Recycling rates for lithium-ion cells are horrendous: About 5% for the United States and European Union. Researchers are finding ways to make lithium-ion batteries more recyclable, but even if that happens, we still need to change the habits of people and corporations who don’t recycle batteries at all and dispose of them by tossing them in the trash.
Further, some experts say there’s a limited amount of lithium available, although how limited is up for debate. The mining of it and cobalt (which is commonly used for a lithium-ion battery’s positive electrode) comes at a high environmental and human cost. Plus, cobalt’s price has risen notably in the past several years.
This all begs the question: Are there cheaper, more environmentally friendly batteries out there? Could we be using something better? What does the future hold?
A lot of people are researching the possibilities. Since the 1990s, more than 300,000 battery-related patents have been filed (more than 30,000 in 2017 alone). While a large percentage of these inventions are related to lithium-ion tech, plenty of work is being done on solid-state electrolyte, silicon-based anode, lithium-air, graphene and other options, some of which are eco-friendly, and others that are environmentally no better than lithium-ion but possibly more efficient.
While most of these new battery types probably won’t be marketed as widely as lithium-ion (at least in the next couple of decades), they can serve really big niche markets. Here are some of the popular ones.
Lithium iron phosphate
Soon after Col. Wilson retired from the military, executives from a solar panel company asked him to dip into his years of energy storage acquisition knowledge (the military is one of the world’s biggest battery users), take a trip to CES in Las Vegas, and survey the current crop of home batteries. After the trip, he created a giant spreadsheet to explain why he was dissatisfied with the options he saw. The best batteries were either overpriced for the average homeowner ($30,000-plus) or didn’t have enough power. He then worked with NeoVolta to create a line of batteries, which typically cost in the very low double digits.
Environmentally minded chem-heads will quickly tell you that lithium-iron-phosphate energy storage is just another type of lithium-ion battery, albeit one with some notable advantages: It’s cheaper, has more dense energy, longer life and won’t catch fire if the insides rupture (which can happen with lithium-ion batteries). The downsides? It’s extremely heavy (which is why it’s better if it’s sitting on your back porch and not in your phone), the case still has lithium in it, and the recycling pathway is unclear.
As such, few have adopted lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, making it tough to know how good their recycling rate is. Some researchers contend they are easier to break into component parts.
Who will win?
In 2019, venture capitalists sunk $1.7 billion into battery startups, with 1.4 billion of it going to lithium-ion related research. But flow batteries, zinc-air, liquid metal, and many other technologies also got written checks. While lithium-ion energy storage will likely dominate energy storage for at least another 10 years, many others already look like they’ll power their way out of the valley of death.