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Is lithium-ion the best way to power a renewable energy future?

Noah Glick Jan 1, 2021
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Panasonic lithium-ion batteries for vehicles are displayed at a convention in 2018. The element is widely used to power cars and devices. David Becker/Getty Images

Is lithium-ion the best way to power a renewable energy future?

Noah Glick Jan 1, 2021
Heard on:
Panasonic lithium-ion batteries for vehicles are displayed at a convention in 2018. The element is widely used to power cars and devices. David Becker/Getty Images
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Venture outside of Las Vegas and Reno and into the high desert, and you’ll see a whole lot of wide, open space. It’s mostly full of sagebrush and desert grasses. But, in the Silver Peak Range of central Nevada, something else is buried underneath the ancient volcanic rock: lithium.

The metallic element has been used for decades in everything from antidepressant medications to ceramics. Now it’s being harvested in massive quantities, primarily for electric vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries are helping to pave the way toward a renewable energy future. The technology powers our laptops, smartphones and electric vehicles. But it’s also had its share of well-publicized safety issues. Some say it might not be the answer to our bigger energy needs.

“It poses additional risks because it stores more energy. The energy density of lithium-ion is higher than most other batteries,” said Andrew Klock of the National Fire Protection Association.

Klock said even with some famous lithium-ion battery explosions, he’s not that concerned about the safety of electric vehicles. That’s because EVs and other devices have battery management systems that alert users when something’s wrong.

“My Android the other day told me I’ve got too many apps open. It’s overheating. ‘Shut them down immediately,’ ” Klock said. “So that’s a good management system, right?”

For one battery cell, sure. But Donald Sadoway, professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, said it’s hard to keep large-scale systems, like those that store energy from solar or wind facilities, cool.

“The lithium ion requires safety measures to put in play, so that you don’t get thermal runaway, which could lead ultimately to fire,” Sadoway said.

In September, an energy storage plant in the United Kingdom using lithium exploded and caught fire. Another in Arizona exploded in 2019, injuring nine first responders.

Plus, lithium-ion batteries lose capacity over time, Sadoway said, making them less than ideal for electric vehicles.

“In your phone and your laptop computer, on day one, you’ve got plenty of run time. On day one plus five years, it’s not the same,” he added.

He said the challenge now is figuring out how to come up with a solution without adding to the price. Sadoway and his partner at MIT are experimenting with battery technology using molten salts

Others, like Larry Zulch, are taking up the challenge, too. Zulch is the CEO of Invinity Energy Systems. His company is working with another metal: vanadium.

“It’s normally used to harden steel. Henry Ford used it in the Model T,” Zulch said.

His company is developing vanadium flow batteries for renewable energy storage. But the chemistry isn’t perfect here either. Vanadium batteries need to be bigger and heavier than lithium. Think shipping container size.

Still, Zulch said, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“They are unlimited in their use. You don’t wear them out by cycling them. You don’t wear them out over time.”

There are other significant benefits to vanadium. The element poses less of a fire risk than lithium-ion. Plus, Zulch said much of the world’s vanadium supply can be found in existing industrial waste.

“We can, in effect, mine our own residue of the past for a long time for vanadium,” Zulch said.

Research into vanadium and other alternatives continues, with potential adoption and mass production years away. Still, while researchers may disagree over the exact technology we should use, they all agree we need to get off fossil fuels now.

That means for the time being, lithium-ion isn’t going anywhere.

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