Contenders for Lithium-Ion’s Crown

Although most of the hardware in consumer electronics devices such as smartphones has improved beyond recognition over the past twenty years, the pace of technological development in battery technology has sadly lagged. Today’s Lithium-ion (Li-I) batteries, first introduced in the early 1990s, are the limiting technology and hindering the pace of technology innovation. In addition, the need to support the development of 5G technology over the next few years, will likely make the issue more acute.

There are multiple battery chemistries under development – new start-ups frequently emerge claiming to have solved the age-old problems of having high energy density, the ability to withstand multiple charging cycles – including fast charging, all while being safe and cost efficient. So, while many contenders enter the ring to slug it out with Li-I, none have yet floored the champion. And in our view, none are likely to for at least the next five years.

The plethora of pretenders is part of the problem. With so many different chemistries being considered, investors are torn between where to lend muscle. And the costs of development are considerable – the R&D alone can run into many hundreds of millions. Scaling to production requires significant further investment — just take a look at the Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory in Nevada for an indication of what it takes to create global-scale battery production.

Tesla Gigafactory (picture credit: Matthew Roberts)

Other problems arise because while many of the developing battery technologies are better than Li-I in one or more of the critical criteria referenced above, they are inferior on one or more of the others.

And Li-I is not a stagnant technology, it is evolving, just not as fast as some of the other hardware features that have taken center-stage in consumer electronics. Nevertheless, we think there are some innovations that will likely come to market within the next two years that will enable a much-needed leap forward for Li-I. These innovations include different anode materials such as silicon as well as the introduction of nano-materials like graphene.

Looking beyond the five-year time horizon and especially at applications such as the electric vehicle, we expect to see developments in technologies such as metal-air.

Battery technology may be a limiting factor, but that isn’t to say that there’s not a lot going on. It’s just that no-one has found the holy grail. Not yet, anyway.

Counterpoint has a new research report that analyses the developments in battery technology. Clients can access the report here.