All about technology and forces shaping the energy transition in shipping

Comparing battery technologies: Nickel-H2 vs. Iron vs. Li-ion

October 14, 2021

As the world clamours to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets to mitigate climate change and electrify different sectors (especially cars), lithium is fast becoming a hot (pun intended) commodity. A recent outlook by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence mentioned that ‘there isn’t enough capacity within the supply pipeline to meet the demand we’re anticipating over the next decade’ and that ‘the deficit of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent)* is expected to grow to 50,000 tons by 2025.’ Moreover, soaring lithium demand is expected to exhaust the residual lithium reserve on land by 2080.

The largest producers of lithium today are Australia, Chile China, Argentina, US, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Portugal. In 2020, the total annual production of lithium amounted to 82,000 tons. Total identified (land-based) lithium resources stand at 86 Million tons; Bolivia, Chile and Argentina (the ‘lithium triangle’) are home to > 50% of these. Several initiatives are looking into potentially extracting significant amounts of lithium from seawater. Environmental, social and ethical issues have long been bones of contention in lithium production.

Several companies and researchers are working on different battery chemistries that aim to store energy at lower costs than lithium-ion batteries, have lower lifecycle climate impact, and reduce our dependence on lithium. A few such chemistries that have made big waves recently are EnerVenue’s nickel-hydrogen battery, ESS Inc’s iron flow battery and Form Energy’s iron-air battery. The following table compares these on a few basic parameters to the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries. It is important to note at this point, that there are several lithium ion battery chemistries in use today, including Lithium-Iron Phosphate (LFP), Lithium-Cobalt Oxide (LCO), Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO), Lithium-Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC), Lithium-Nickel Cobalt Aluminium (NCA), and Lithium-Titanate Oxide (LTO) and they could use different types of anodes, including carbon (graphite, hard carbon, soft carbon, graphene), silicon, and tin.

The cost per kWh is compared below without taking into account the balance of plant (all the components surrounding the battery cells) and the integration specific to each chemistry or application (automotive, marine, etc.). These additional costs can be quite significant, especially in the case of maritime batteries. For marine applications, batteries are required to meet more stringent safety and operational parameters when compared to batteries used in cars or for stationary applications. They also tend to be much larger, as even the auxiliary power systems of inland or short sea cargo vessels would require far more capacity than a Tesla model S for example.

The number of vessels operating with batteries on board has grown rapidly over the last decade. The Maritime Battery Forum’s ship register estimates that there are > 400 vessels with batteries on board, either in operation or on order in 2021.

It might take a while for nickel or iron batteries to be mature enough / ready to be deployed in the maritime space. Some of them may not even be suitable for onboard applications given conditions like salt water, humidity, vibrations due to currents, etc., or their physical footprint. But they are interesting developments to follow, as they could be combined with Li ion batteries to offer more economical, optimised and sustainable solutions to decarbonise port operations or increase access to shore power.

*Lithium carbonate as well as lithium hydroxide are both required for batteries. But other other lithium compounds are typically produced from lithium carbonate, making it the reference point for measuring production.

**Data from: BNEFESS Inc.TechCrunchRecharge NewsRedefining Energy Podcast — Long Duration Energy Storage: The “Final frontier”Form Energy.

Post first published on 3 October 2021, and updated on 14 October 2021.

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