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 Type||Chemistry||Example Metal Portions||Example Use|
|NCA||LiNiCoAlO2||80% Nickel, 15% Cobalt, 5% Aluminum||Tesla Model S|
|LCO||LiCoO2||100% Cobalt||Apple iPhone|
|LMO||LiMn2O4||100% Manganese||Nissan Leaf|
|NMC||LiNiMnCoO2||Nickel 33.3%, Manganese 33.3%, Cobalt 33.3%||Tesla Powerwall|
|LFP||LiFePO4||100% Iron||Starter 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.
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.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.
This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.
China’s Ambitious Plan
A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.
China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.
|Energy Source||2025||2060||% Change|
Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA
According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.
Progress Towards Renewables?
While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.
According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.
Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.
Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).
Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.
Up to the Task?
China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.
However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.
The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.
The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.
Visualizing the Flow of U.S. Energy Consumption
From renewables to fossil fuels, we’ve visualized the diverse mix of energy sources that powered U.S. energy consumption in 2020.
Breaking Down America’s Energy Consumption in 2020
The United States relies on a complex mix of energy sources to fuel the country’s various end-sectors’ energy consumption.
While this energy mix is still dominated by fossil fuels, there are signs of a steady shift to renewable energy over the past decade.
This radial Sankey diagram using data from the EIA (Energy Information Administration) breaks down U.S. energy consumption in 2020, showing us how much each sector relies on various energy sources.
The Balance of Energy Production and Consumption
In 2019 and now in 2020, America’s domestic energy production has actually been greater than its consumption—a development that hasn’t taken place since 1957.
Last year’s numbers were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing a 5% drop in energy production and a 7% drop in consumption compared to 2019. Total energy production and consumption for 2020 came in at 95.75 and 92.94 quads respectively.
The energy amounts are equalized and measured in quadrillion BTUs (British thermal units), also known as quads. A quad is a huge amount of energy, equivalent to 183 million barrels of petroleum or 36 million tonnes of coal.
So how is America’s overall energy production and consumption split between energy sources?
U.S. Energy Production and Consumption Share by Source
|Energy Source||Percentage of U.S. Energy Production||Percentage of U.S. Energy Consumption|
America’s new margin of energy production over consumption has resulted in the country being a net total energy exporter again, providing some flexibility as the country continues its transition towards more sustainable and renewable energy sources.
Fossil Fuels Still Dominate U.S. Energy Consumption
While America’s mix of energy consumption is fairly diverse, 79% of domestic energy consumption still originates from fossil fuels. Petroleum powers over 90% of the transportation sector’s consumption, and natural gas and petroleum make up 74% of the industrial sector’s direct energy consumption.
There are signs of change as consumption of the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal, has declined more than 58% since its peak in 2005. Coinciding with this declining coal dependence, consumption from renewable energy has increased for six years straight, setting record highs again in 2020.
However, fossil fuels still make up 79% of U.S. energy consumption, with renewables and nuclear accounting for the remaining 21%. The table below looks at the share of specific renewable energy sources in 2020.
Distribution of Renewable Energy Sources
|Renewable Energy Source||2020 Energy Consumption in Quads||Share of 2020 Renewable Energy Consumption|
The Nuclear Necessity for a Zero-Emission Energy Transition
It’s not all up to renewable energy sources to clean up America’s energy mix, as nuclear power will play a vital role in reducing carbon emissions. Technically not a renewable energy source due to uranium’s finite nature, nuclear energy is still a zero-emission energy that has provided around 20% of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990.
Support for nuclear power has been growing slowly, and last year was the first which saw nuclear electricity generation overtake coal. However, this might not last as three nuclear plants including New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant are set to be decommissioned in 2021, with a fourth plant scheduled for retirement in 2022.
It’s worth noting that while other countries might have a higher share of nuclear energy in their total electricity generation, the U.S. still has the largest nuclear generation capacity worldwide and has generated more nuclear electricity than any other country in the world.
Converting Energy to Electricity
The energy produced by nuclear power plants doesn’t go directly to its end-use sector, rather, 100% of nuclear energy in the U.S. is converted to electricity which is sold to consumers. Along with nuclear, most energy sources aside from petroleum are primarily converted to electricity.
Unfortunately, electricity conversion is a fairly inefficient process, with around 65% of the energy lost in the conversion, transmission, and distribution of electricity.
This necessary but wasteful step allows for the storage of energy in electrical form, ensuring that it can be distributed properly. Working towards more efficient methods of energy to electricity conversion is an often forgotten aspect of reducing wasted energy.
Despite the dip in 2020, both energy production and consumption in the U.S. are forecasted to continue rising. As Biden aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 (from 2005 emission levels), U.S. energy consumption will inevitably continue to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable and nuclear energy.
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