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Pros and Cons of Lithium Batteries

Introduction

 

As lithium batteries become more and more prevalent, whether they be in our smartphones, laptops, or even our vehicles, it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages these batteries offer in terms of financial costs, technological advancements, environmental impact, and user friendliness (see previous article about battery technology)

However, it is important to offer a brief recap of what exactly a lithium battery is in order to better frame the different advantages and disadvantages. Typically, lithium-ion batteries are batteries wherein lithium ions would move from the anode, passing through the often liquid electrolyte, before reaching the cathode and recombining with their electrons. There, they would electrically neutralize themselves.

 

Financial Costs

 

That being said, lithium batteries’ are arguably among the most affordable batteries available. This is due to the batteries’ being known for their long lifetimes and high energy density which roughly equates to two to three times that of nickel-cadmium batteries and up to four times that of lead-acid batteries, states the Australian Academy of Science.

In fact, according to a 2019 article by Power Technology (a part of the American Chemical Society), lithium batteries carry approximately 150 watt-hours (WH) of energy per kilogram (kg) or 150WH/kg. In comparison, nickel-metal hydride batteries and lead acid batteries only possess 60-70WH/kg and 25WH/kg, respectively.

This means that with a lithium battery half the size of a nickel-based battery can at least give the same amount of power of the nickel-based battery, making lithium batteries lighter, more compact, portable, and efficient. Though, these advantages do come with price tags 40% higher than that of the average nickel-based batteries - a result of lithium’s rarity.

 

Technological Advancements

 

Beyond their overall cost efficiency vis a vis their lifespan and efficiency, lithium batteries also have a higher overall charge per unit mass and unit volume than their peers. The Clean Energy Institute states that lithium-ion batteries, at approximately 3.6 volts, deliver three times the amount of volts nickel-based batteries can.

Moreover, lithium batteries losing only 5% of their charge monthly versus nickel-based batteries losing 20% monthly means that these batteries have a lower discharge rate. Lithium batteries are also not afflicted by the memory effect or when repeated partial discharges/charges lead to batteries “remembering” to store electricity at lower capacities.

To add to this, lithium-ion batteries have a more efficient chemical process than most other batteries. According to the Australian Academy of Science, due to the chemical properties present, each lithium ion does not have to complete the journey from the anode to the cathode to complete the circuit as ions are already present in the electrolyte near the electrode can be easily absorbed into the cathode.

However, the tradeoff to this is that lithium batteries require safety mechanisms in the form of voltage limiters and internal pressures, potentially hampering performance and increasing weight. Not to mention, these batteries are known to fail after a certain number of years.

 

Environmental Impact

 

In terms of lithium batteries’ environmental impact, the most significant is the fact that lithium batteries do not contain the toxic element cadmium that many nickel-based batteries contain. Thus, disposing of lithium batteries should be easier. Should.

According to Alpine Power Systems, though easier to dispose of than nickel-based batteries, lithium batteries are harder to recycle than lead-acid batteries. To this end, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration even has specific regulations on recycling lithium batteries. Moreover, 99% of lead-acid batteries have value at the end of their life cycle and are therefore able to be recycled. On the other hand, lithium batteries practically have no commodity value.

In fact, recycling lithium batteries can result in additional costs. Nonetheless, during their life cycles, lithium batteries can help sustain if not serve as environmentally sound technologies such as power sources for electric cars and energy storage units for solar panels. The aforementioned high energy density, relative light-weight, and compactness make them perfect for these uses.

 

User-Friendliness

 

Lastly, with regards to user-friendliness, unlike their peers, lithium batteries do not need frequent maintenance in the form of battery watering, equalisation, cool-down time, or acid adjustments. As such, they virtually require zero maintenance, eliminating the need for specialised personnel to maintain these lithium batteries. Lithium batteries do, however, require additional monitoring.

This is in anticipation for any possible damage that may arise from the batteries’ relatively complex chemical processes which, though not a direct concern of or something to be constantly managed by most, does result in some thermal instability on the part of lithium batteries. The anodes have the potential to overheat at high temperatures whereas the cobalt oxide cathodes’ has potential to decompose (meaning that oxygen can be produced).

These factors, coupled with the electrolyte solution being flammable, means a fire can erupt. As a result, issues surrounding transporting lithium ion batteries exist. So much so that the US Department of Transportation has prohibited the shipping of lithium batteries in bulk for most carriers and put in place specific guidelines on shipping these batteries via aeroplane. As do the International Air Transport Association. Additional packaging requirements are therefore also in order.

 

Conclusion

 

Ultimately, lithium batteries, as previously evidenced, possess numerous advantages that have made them a mainstay in modern and everyday technologies. However, as with any piece of technology, a few drawbacks exist, though none are arguably so pressing as to necessitate the shelving of these batteries. Regardless, beyond their aforementioned uses, lithium batteries can see their uses expand in the near future. This topic will thus be explored in greater depth in the next blog article, the third and final in a three-part series on batteries.

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