The drawbacks of lithium-ion batteries

December 31, 2008 7:10:30 PM PST
The nation is working to move away from fossil fuels and toward plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. But, are we trading one limited natural resource for another?

Lithium-ion batteries are now considered the best option for the next generation of cars. But where will all that lithium come from?

The quest for an affordable and dependable battery powered electric car is nothing new. It all started with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison.

And here's Ford's entry into the electric car market -- it was 1914 and Edison was promising ford a better battery. It seems Mrs. Ford didn't like driving those gas fueled "explosion cars" as they were sometimes called.

But Edison's promise has yet to be fulfilled. At the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, chemical engineer Vince Bataglia and his team of scientists are working on it.

"You're going to get about 150 miles with the present lithium ion battery and that's just not what people want from an electric car," said Bataglia.

Current plug-in hybrids use a nickel-metal hydride battery. It's reliable, costs less than lithium-ion -- about $5,000 versus $20,000, but it's also less powerful.

"We need that 25 percent increase in energy density. That's what we're searching for," said Bataglia.

Bataglia's lab uses small coin cell batteries to search for that increase. Lithium-ion batteries are the hope for the future because they offer that extra energy. But right now in addition to being more expensive, they're also less reliable, occasionally erupting into flames. Mrs. Ford wouldn't be happy.

And, there's another potential concern. Lithium is a metal, and just like fossil fuels, a limited natural resource.

About 50 percent of the world's supply is in Bolivia. Russia, China and the Congo are also lithium producers.

Mitsubishi is rushing to buy it, fearing demand will exceed supply in 10 years. But UC Berkeley renewable energy expert Dan Kammen thinks Mistubishi should relax.

"We haven't even begun to build plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle markets, and we haven't begun to explore where the other sources are for these materials," said Kammen, Ph.D.

And Kammen says we won't have to rely on lithium alone.

"We really have left batteries on the sidelines for many decades. The more we begin to innovate, the more we're likely to see that we have a diversity of options," said Kammen, Ph.D.

So in the meantime, the road to an electric vehicle world will be paved one test coin cell at a time.