Expectations in the battery industry were, until recently, that the cost of Lithium-Ion, sodium nickel chloride (known as ZEBRA), and vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs) would plummet to less than $200/KWh in the next decade. Instead, Lux Research has released a market report that says that the high capital costs associated with battery production will keep costs at or near $500/KWh for at least the next 10 years.
Though the projected prices are lower than current prices, they fall substantially short of the expectations which were perpetuated, notably, by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Each battery type has its own impediments for achieving the lower cost goals. According to the report, Li-ion batteries will steadily lose market share to the other types, but will remain in demand due to their high energy density. Lux projects the cost of Li-ion batteries to fall 45 percent in the next decade.
The outlook is less optimistic for ZEBRA batteries. Lux says that the production costs associated with these molten-salt batteries accounts for up to 60 percent of total costs. Until the process of refining the raw materials can be improved, costs for ZEBRA batteries will remain high. ZEBRAs, however, have the most commercial potential of the three types examined.
Vanadium pentoxide is the key component of VRFB batteries and has a notoriously variable market. Lux suggests that vertical integration and supply agreements for vanadium pentoxide are key to lowering long term costs.
Despite these predictions from Lux, exciting new battery innovations are taking place that have the potential to lower costs, improve performance, and, in one case, completely revolutionize the concept of the battery.
Recently, A123 Systems, a Massachusetts based battery manufacturer, announced the release of a new type of Li-ion battery. The company is calling the lithium ion battery, named the Nanophosphate EXT, a “game-changing breakthrough” for energy storage. In a nutshell, the new battery has the potential to be more powerful and lighter than traditional Li-ion batteries. It can also operate effectively at a greater range of environmental conditions, potentially improving the performance of electric vehicles. A much more detailed look at the Nanophosphate EXT battery can be found here.
In another project at Rice University, researchers have announced the development of batteries that can be painted onto surfaces. The team, headed by Neelam Singh, has taken the five component layers in battery production and created “sprayable versions of each layer, allowing them to make batteries just a fraction of a millimeter thick by airbrushing the layers onto a surface one at a time.”
Using this method, the researchers have created batteries out of everything from wall tiles to coffee mugs, even using bathroom tiles charged by a solar cell to power 40 LEDs. However, Singh admits the batteries are a long way from commercial viability. The paint batteries aren’t very powerful, it would take a tile about 1.5 square feet to match the power output of a typical mobile phone battery. If the batteries could be manufactured on a commercial scale, however, capabilities are sure to improve. “Their capacity, efficiency and performance could be vastly improved if made on an industrial scale,” says Singh
Moreover, the paint currently has to be applied in a special 248 degree, oxygen free, moisture free environment.
Despite all the impediments, the implications of this technology are huge. Researchers are currently working on photovoltaic paint that can be applied to exterior walls of buildings. Imagine a scenario where the the sun hits photovoltaic cells painted onto the side of an office building, charging the battery also built into the paint. The electricity generated could be used to run the air conditioning of the building — all without ever having to go offsite for power.
Though the cost estimates for batteries over the next decade are lower than expected, the future of the technology is still exciting.
Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center for American Progress.