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The Cathode is the Key to Advancing Lithium-Ion Technology



Cathodes: The Key to Advancing Lithium-Ion Technology

Cathodes: The Key to Advancing Lithium-Ion Technology

The inner-workings of most commercialized batteries are typically pretty straightforward.

The lead-acid battery, which is the traditional battery used in the automotive sector, is as easy as it gets. Put two lead plates in sulphuric acid, and you’re off to the races.

However, lithium-ion batteries are almost infinitely more complex than their predecessors. That’s because “lithium-ion” refers to a mechanism – the transfer of lithium-ions – which can occur in a variety of cathode, anode, and electrolyte environments. As a result, there’s not just one type of lithium-ion battery, but instead the name acts as an umbrella that represents thousands of different formulations that could work.

The Cathode’s Importance

Today’s infographic comes to us from Nano One, a Canadian tech company that specializes in battery materials, and it provides interesting context on lithium-ion battery advancements over the last couple of decades.

Since the commercialization of the lithium-ion battery in the 1990s, there have been relatively few developments in the materials or technology used for anodes and electrolytes. For example, graphite is still the material of choice for anodes, though researchers are trying to figure out how to make the switch over to silicon. Meanwhile, the electrolyte is typically a lithium salt in an organic solvent (except in lithium-ion polymer batteries).

Cathodes, on the other hand, are a very different story. That’s because they are usually made up of metal oxides or phosphates – and there are many different possible combinations that can be used.

Here are five examples of commercialized cathode formulations, and the metals needed for them (aside from lithium):

Cathode TypeChemistryExample Metal PortionsExample Use
NCALiNiCoAlO280% Nickel, 15% Cobalt, 5% AluminumTesla Model S
LCOLiCoO2100% CobaltApple iPhone
LMOLiMn2O4100% ManganeseNissan Leaf
NMCLiNiMnCoO2Nickel 33.3%, Manganese 33.3%, Cobalt 33.3%Tesla Powerwall
LFPLiFePO4100% IronStarter batteries

Lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, aluminum, and iron are just some of the metals used in current lithium-ion batteries out there – and each battery type has considerably different properties. The type of cathode chosen can affect the energy density, power density, safety, cycle life, and cost of the overall battery, and this is why researchers are constantly experimenting with new ideas and combinations.

Drilling Down

For companies like Tesla, which wants the exit rate of lithium-ion cells to be faster than “bullets from a machine gun”, the cathode is of paramount importance. Historically, it’s where most advancements in lithium-ion battery technology have been made.

Cathode choice is a major factor for determining battery energy density, and cathodes also typically account for 25% of lithium-ion battery costs. That means the cathode can impact both the performance and cost pieces of the $/kWh equation – and building a better cathode will likely be a key driver for the success of the green revolution.

Luckily, the future of cathode development has many exciting prospects. These include concepts such as building cathodes with layered-layered composite structures or orthosilicates, as well as improvements to the fundamental material processes used in cathode assembly.

As these new technologies are applied, the cost of lithium-ion batteries will continue to decrease. In fact, experts are now saying that it won’t be long before batteries will hit $80/kWh – a cost that would make EVs undeniably cheaper than traditional gas-powered vehicles.

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Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources

What are the safest energy sources? This graphic shows both GHG emissions and accidental deaths caused by different energy sources.



Safest energy sources shareable updated

Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources

Recent conversations about climate change, emissions, and health have put a spotlight on the world’s energy sources.

As of 2021, nearly 90% of global CO₂ emissions came from fossil fuels. But energy production doesn’t just lead to carbon emissions, it can also cause accidents and air pollution that has a significant toll on human life.

This graphic by Ruben Mathisen uses data from Our World in Data to help visualize exactly how safe or deadly these energy sources are.

Fossil Fuels are the Highest Emitters

All energy sources today produce greenhouse gases either directly or indirectly. However, the top three GHG-emitting energy sources are all fossil fuels.

EnergyGHG Emissions (CO₂e/gigawatt-hour)
Coal820 tonnes
Oil720 tonnes
Natural Gas490 tonnes
Biomass78-230 tonnes
Hydropower34 tonnes
Solar5 tonnes
Wind4 tonnes
Nuclear3 tonnes

Coal produces 820 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (CO₂e) per gigawatt-hour. Not far behind is oil, which produces 720 tonnes CO₂e per gigawatt-hour. Meanwhile, natural gas produces 490 tonnes of CO₂e per gigawatt-hour.

These three sources contribute to over 60% of the world’s energy production.

Deadly Effects

Generating energy at a massive scale can have other side effects, like air pollution or accidents that take human lives.

Energy SourcesDeath rate (deaths/terawatt-hour)
Natural Gas2.8
Nuclear energy0.03

According to Our World in Data, air pollution and accidents from mining and burning coal fuels account for around 25 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity—roughly the amount consumed by about 150,000 EU citizens in one year. The same measurement sees oil responsible for 18 annual deaths, and natural gas causing three annual deaths.

Meanwhile, hydropower, which is the most widely used renewable energy source, causes one annual death per 150,000 people. The safest energy sources by far are wind, solar, and nuclear energy at fewer than 0.1 annual deaths per terawatt-hour.

Nuclear energy, because of the sheer volume of electricity generated and low amount of associated deaths, is one of the world’s safest energy sources, despite common perceptions.

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