Lithium batteries are the future of electric vehicles. The industry still works with lead-acid batteries and is exposed to countless risks that are not present with lithium.

The lead-acid battery study

A study in collaboration with the Association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers (EUROBAT) and the European, Japanese and South Korean automobile manufacturers’ associations (ACEA, JAMA and KAMA) has emerged to support a future submission under the European End-of-Life Vehicle Directive.

Dr. Davidson highlighted the contrast of the results with other battery technologies that possibly raise issues for the future mass replacement of lead with other materials, if it eventually proves to be technically and economically feasible. One such technology that has been suggested as a rival to the SLI corona is the lithium-ion battery. This currently has very limited use in the SLI space, only being used in luxury vehicles and in racing cars, predominantly due to current technical difficulties such as cold start and due to the significant cost difference between lead and lead-acid technology.

In its analysis of lithium resource availability, the ILA study identified a number of challenges facing this battery technology if it is to compete with lead-acid batteries. For example, if lithium-ion batteries are required in the same quantities as lead-acid batteries, lithium production would have to increase more than threefold, which could pose a significant challenge to its availability as a resource.

More than 600 million lead-acid batteries were produced in 2012 and if this number were replaced by lithium-ion batteries, 90,000 tonnes of lithium would be needed – although there are abundant lithium reserves, current total world production is 37,000 tonnes, of which less than 10,000 tonnes of lithium is used for cars.

Most lithium is found in South America, in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and Dr Davidson highlighted the inherent risk of having a resource that is only available in a specific region. Any unrest or government instability in these regions could greatly affect the supply of lithium and have an impact on the price of the battery, as well as the cost of the vehicle.

The recycling of lithium-ion batteries, currently under development, was also discussed. Currently, less than 1% of lithium is recycled, and only a few companies are able to recycle lithium-ion batteries. On the other hand, due to the different chemistries used in lithium-ion batteries, a number of technical challenges are expected for recyclers. Recycling lithium-ion batteries is not economically viable, as recycled lithium can cost up to five times more than what was initially produced. Lithium also has a low economic value, and any recycling is likely to be driven by other metals in the battery such as nickel and cobalt.

The study recommends that policy makers should consider more than technical issues when mandating the substitution of one substance for another. It is clear that there is a role for multiple battery chemistries in the market, and that the widespread replacement of a very high volume product such as the lead-acid battery, and its well-established and highly efficient circular economy, with a more technically complex chemistry that has a greater reliance on primary extraction of key raw materials, may present unforeseen problems, such as the future availability of natural resources. Translated with (free version)

The advantages of lithium batteries over lead batteries:

  • Stores more energy and weighs less
  • Lifetime is 3 times longer
  • 10 times lower self-discharge rate
  • Fast charging (100% in 1 hour)
  • Does not overheat
  • No need to unload them to reload them again.
  • No need for constant maintenance
  • They are safer because they do not use electrolyte, and do not give off toxic and flammable gases.