May 23, 2009
Lithium Sulfur Batteries To Make Electric Cars Viable?

Technology Review reports on technological advances that might make viable lithium sulfur batteries with 3 to 10 times the storage capacity of existing lithium ion batteries.

Lithium-sulfur batteries, which can potentially store several times more energy than lithium-ion batteries, have historically been too costly, unsafe, and unreliable to make commercially. But they're getting a fresh look now, due to some recent advances. Improvements to the design of these batteries have led the chemical giant BASF of Ludwigshafen, Germany, to team up with Sion Power, a company in Tucson, AZ, that has already developed prototype lithium-sulfur battery cells.

Read the full articles for the many details. They haven't solved all the problems yet. For example, the existing lithium sulfur design is good for only 50 recharges. At 300 miles range per recharge that only gets you 15,000 miles before you need to buy a new battery.

On the bright side, the sulfur is incredibly cheap, close to free in fact. Lots of sulfur gets removed from tar sands and other fossil fuels and there's no shortage of the stuff.

With the coming of Peak Oil we face a liquid fuels shortage. Viable batteries that can power cars for hundreds of miles would go far to ease our transition away from oil. We are in a race between oil field depletion and the technological advances we need to migrate to electric power sources. We have enough natural gas, coal, uranium, wind, and sunlight to generate the electricity we need. The future is electric.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 May 23 12:49 PM  Energy Batteries


Comments
Fat Man said at May 23, 2009 2:58 PM:

Here is the link to the GCC article on the same subject.

I don't see 3 to ten times anything here. The most specific information is a chart that shows 300 or 350 or 400 Wh/kg depending. Since current LiIon batteries get 150 Wh/kg, I think 2 to 2.6 is more like it. I think the threshold of a successful BEV will be an order of magnitude above the current levels. I doubt that we are going to get there.

Randall Parker said at May 23, 2009 3:43 PM:

Fat Man,

I think it depends on what they are using as their reference point. Practically speaking NiMH is really the deployed reference point. There are few lithium battery vehicles on the road.

The definition of a successful BEV depends on four things: the price of gasoline, total size of the economy, the cost of the batteries, and the performance of the batteries. I expect the price of gasoline to rise substantially as oil production declines. I'm not sure what'll happen to the economy and therefore I'm not sure what the aggregate demand will be for passenger transportation. The needed level of performance of the batteries goes down as gasoline prices go up.

Engineer-Poet said at May 23, 2009 7:47 PM:

Now they're talking Li-S.  What happened to NaS?  That's been in development for decades.  Even the melting points aren't that different (both ridiculously high).

Current-tech Li-ion is more than good enough for solid PHEVs.  Heck, Firefly Energy's 3D² lead-acid is good enough for PHEVs.  Let's quit wasting time making Perfect the enemy of Good Enough.

Nick G said at May 23, 2009 11:33 PM:

Yes, I agree with Engineer-Poet.

Pure EV's aren't quite ready yet, but PHEVs are just fine. The Chevy Volt will use 90% less fuel than the average US car/light truck, and have a lower lifecycle cost.

That's good enough.

Bob Sykes said at May 24, 2009 5:17 AM:

There are several things wrong with this post and its comments. First, the idea that peak oil means no more oil is wrong. Peak oil refers to low cost sources, which will be exhausted over a time frame of decades. After that there are large reserves of oil that is expensive to recover, much larger reserves of coal, and even larger reserves of natural gas. So the era of liquid fuels can last a few hundred years more.

As to electric cars being zero emissions, this is utter nonsense. In the US, half the electricity comes from coal. So electric cars are coal-fired cars. In fact, when transmission loses and the CO2 emissions associated with the construction of power plants, cars and batteries and transmission lines are counted, electric cars emit as much or more CO2 than do gasoline/diesel cars. Electric cars merely transfer the site of the emissions to another place. This may be useful and justifiable in pollution sensitive places like LA, but the emissions don't disappear from the whole system.

Electric cars are low (not zero) emission vehicles only if the electricity source is nuclear or hydro-electric. Hydro-electric sources are almost totally exploited and cannot be further expanded. Environmentalists are trying to shut down what we have. We would need to build around 400 nuclear power stations to replace the 100 or so elderly ones we have and to get to France's 80% of total electric supply by nuclear. To add electric cars to the load will require another few hundred nuclear power stations. Plus a greatly expanded power grid.

That of course is just the fuel side of the electric car problem. A systems analysis will show there will still be substantial emission of CO2 and other pollutants due to their manufacture and eventual disposal/recyling. The batteries are an especially nasty problem.

As to sulfur being almost free. So is uranium/plutonium/thorium/potassium/deuterium if you focus only on the energy available per pound. But the capital investment required to capture the energy is so stupendous that hydroelectric and fossil fuels power plants provide cheaper energy overall.

In a few hundred years, we may well be living in an all-electric economy, but it will not be an emissions-free economy as that violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics. And because electricity costs will be high, it might be an economy with standards of living well below what we now have.

Paul F. Dietz said at May 24, 2009 5:59 AM:

Now they're talking Li-S. What happened to NaS?

Very different technologies. Li-S is a room temperature system with the sulfur in the form of lithium polysufides. NaS is a heated system with molten sodium and sulfur and a solid ceramic electrolyte; it had corrosion problems that have led to the use of sodium-metal chloride systems instead (ZEBRA batteries).

Engineer-Poet said at May 24, 2009 6:53 AM:
First, the idea that peak oil means no more oil is wrong. Peak oil refers to low cost sources, which will be exhausted over a time frame of decades. After that there are large reserves of oil that is expensive to recover, much larger reserves of coal, and even larger reserves of natural gas. So the era of liquid fuels can last a few hundred years more.
You typify a very common misunderstanding, which conceals the enormous consequences of Peak Oil.  Peak Oil means the end of high EROI oil.  Shale gas is similarly low-EROI.  A great deal of the investment required to extract it is in the form of energy, so the price escalates toward infinity as the EROI drops toward 1.  This is the law of receding horizons.  The conclusion is that the bulk of the low-EROI resources will never be produced; before prices can rise high enough to make them attractive, the economy will contract instead.
As to electric cars being zero emissions, this is utter nonsense. In the US, half the electricity comes from coal. So electric cars are coal-fired cars. In fact, when transmission loses and the CO2 emissions associated with the construction of power plants, cars and batteries and transmission lines are counted, electric cars emit as much or more CO2 than do gasoline/diesel cars.
Not quite.  Electric cars charged from coal-fired power emit roughly as much as a Prius, which is quite a bit better than the average car.  However, the generation mix is a moving target.  An EV charged from a gas-fired CCGT is better than an NGV, and the USA has enough wind to power our entire grid and our entire transport network, with plenty left over.  Any vehicle which takes energy from the grid (PHEV, EV, electric rail) can have "its" per-mile emissions drop over time, perhaps to zero; the emissions of an ICV are essentially fixed at manufacture.  There is also the factor of energy security to consider; oil is very insecure, electricity highly secure.
We would need to build around 400 nuclear power stations to replace the 100 or so elderly ones we have and to get to France's 80% of total electric supply by nuclear. To add electric cars to the load will require another few hundred nuclear power stations. Plus a greatly expanded power grid.
The USA gets about 90 GW from nuclear and 230 GW average from coal.  The current generation of PWRs generates about 1.6 GW/unit, so replacing the existing plants would need about 57 new units and replacing coal would take another 140.

We don't need to expand the power grid.  It's highly under-loaded at night, so charge the cars then and it'll do just fine more or less as it is.  The extra revenue will pay for things like new transformers to replace the ones reaching end of life.

If the USA gets wise and revisits disruptive technologies like molten salt reactors, we could probably crank out a 250 MW unit every day.  The reactor vessel proper would fit on a flatbed truck, the supercritical CO2 turbine system for it would fit on another.  If we installed 3 units a week (exporting 2), we'd get 37.5 GW/year and fully replace coal in about 6 years.  If e.g. a LFTR requires 600 kg/GW of recovered PWR fissiles (Pu) to start itself*, we have enough on hand to fire up about 375 GW of capacity.  By the time we actually did this, we'd have more (and could enrich more as required).

* David LeBlanc claims that a graphite-moderated LFTR can run on as little as 400 kg of fissiles per GWe.  Figuring 600 kg of Pu required given the lower neutron yield vs. U-233, 60% fissile fraction in recovered PWR Pu, PWR fuel assayed at 0.8% Pu, and 47000 tons of PWR fuel in storage in the USA, I get 376 tons total Pu, 226 tons fissiles, and the capability to start 376 GW of reactors at 600 kg fissiles each.

Randall Parker said at May 24, 2009 8:48 AM:

Bob Sykes,

If you are going to tell me I'm wrong actually respond to what I said rather than a strawman of your devising. You say:

First, the idea that peak oil means no more oil is wrong. Peak oil refers to low cost sources, which will be exhausted over a time frame of decades.

Where do I say oil production just stops? It starts declining. This has happened in many countries. The list of countries in decline gets longer every year. Eventually every country goes into decline. Then we get by with less oil every year.

Low cost and high cost sources: The low cost sources are already in decline globally. We are now maintaining oil production by moving more aggressive into higher cost source extraction. That means deep water and tar sands.

Then there's this:

As to electric cars being zero emissions, this is utter nonsense.

An increasing fraction of new electric power generation is going to come from low CO2 electric power sources. Coal is cheaper than nukes and wind but not so much cheaper that we can't afford to switch. A few cents per kwh more isn't going to substantially lower our living standards. Electric power costs vary much more than that between the states already.

Sulfur: Let me be clear. There's a huge glut of sulfur since it is a byproduct of fossil fuels extraction. Alberta huge and growing sulfur stockpiles that it can't sell because of transportation costs. Sulfur goes for tens of dollars per ton with transportation costs determining where industrial users buy it from. If a car could carry a whole ton of sulfur in a battery it would cost more for the steel to hold the battery than for the sulfur in the battery. Sulfur costs are not an obstacle.

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 9:56 AM:

Bob said,

Peak oil refers to low cost sources... there are large reserves of oil that is expensive... the era of liquid fuels can last a few hundred years more.

The question is: why choose expensive imported oil (or even more expensive synthetic oil of various sorts), when we can use much less expensive, much cleaner domestic electricity (and mostly domestic batteries) instead?

Engineer-Poet,

My main concern about conventional nuclear power is it's link to weapons proliferation. Any thoughts about molten salt reactors in this regard?

Paul F. Dietz said at May 24, 2009 10:19 AM:

My main concern about conventional nuclear power is it's link to weapons proliferation.

This is akin to objecting to fossil fuel powerplants because of the link of fossil fuels to chemical explosives production. Commercial nuclear powerplants have never been used for proliferation -- the direct route through dedicated military facilities is easier. And lack of nuclear powerplants has not stopped countries from developing dedicated military enrichment facilities.

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 10:35 AM:

This is akin to objecting to fossil fuel powerplants because of the link of fossil fuels to chemical explosives production.

Not really. The link is quite tight (e.g., France's electricity is 60% nuclear, and they're the only continental nuclear power). If it isn't, why are we worried about nuclear power in Iran? Why did Israel bomb the nuclear power plant in Iraq? Why do nuclear power plants scattered across the Middle East make us nervous?

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 10:39 AM:

Bob said,

France's 80% of total electric supply by nuclear

Fun facts: France only produces about 60% of it's total domestic electric supply by nuclear. It exports another 20% at night at very low prices.

It imports 20% during the day, mostly from Swiss hydro plants, at much higher prices. Given the price disparity, it's not really a 1:1 swap.

Fat Man said at May 24, 2009 11:40 AM:

"If it isn't, why are we worried about nuclear power in Iran? Why did Israel bomb the nuclear power plant in Iraq? Why do nuclear power plants scattered across the Middle East make us nervous?"

We are not worried about civilian nuclear electric power in Iran, e.g. the Russian reactor at Bashir. We are worried about the the enrichment plant at nantaz that is being used to produce highly enriched U suitable only for bomb cores, The reactor the that israel destroyed in Iraq a few years back and the one in Syria that they destroyed last year were of a type designed to produce Pu 239, material useful solely for bomb cores. Neither was a "power plant".

Sweeden gets lots of electricity from nuclear power, and they are not a "nuclear power".

There is no necessary link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. It is completely possible to have one without the other.

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 12:10 PM:

There is no necessary link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. It is completely possible to have one without the other.

No question. Japan, for another instance, has power plants without weapons. On the other hand, Japan would only need about 15 minutes to develop weapons, if they really wanted to.

the enrichment plant at nantaz that is being used to produce highly enriched U suitable only for bomb cores

Do we have hard evidence of that? As far as I can tell, we have no evidence their enrichment has gone beyond the basic required for commercial power production, but which gives them a capability for highly enriched U.

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 12:38 PM:

Fat Man, E-P,

There's an exciting profusion of promising battery chemistries, isn't there? Here's another:

"The high-energy-density sodium-metal-halide cell batteries are "very good for storing lots of energy in a small space," said Mark Little, senior VP and director of GE Global Research. He added that while the technology yields "great performance using common materials," it requires "a sophisticated manufacturing process," which has "over 30 patents on it."

The first application will be GE's hybrid locomotive. Heavy vehicles such as locomotives, buses, and off-highway trucks make up 10% of all vehicles in the United States but account for half of all fuel consumption.

Sodium battery technology will allow GE to introduce a hybrid, heavy-haul freight locomotive that reduces emissions while improving fuel efficiency. The company also has lined up mining, telecommunications, and utility customers. Key applications are heavy service vehicles, backup storage, and load leveling for the smart grid.

The most technologically interesting aspect of Tuesday's announcement may be the potential it holds for automotive batteries. If the power of lithium-ion batteries and the storage capability of sodium batteries were to be combined, they might yield a superior battery for hybrid cars. "

http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=217400594

Fat Man said at May 24, 2009 1:14 PM:

"Practically speaking NiMH is really the deployed reference point."

Maybe they should have used alternating zinc and copper plates separated by cardboard soaked in brine as their benchmark.

Fat Man said at May 24, 2009 1:22 PM:

"Do we have hard evidence of that? As far as I can tell, we have no evidence their enrichment has gone beyond the basic required for commercial power production, but which gives them a capability for highly enriched U."

If you believe the Iranians.

The Russians are willing to do all of the enrichment the Iranians might need to run Bashir. Further, the Iranians are the chief sponsors of terrorism in the world today, and have repeatedly repeatedly stated their intention to wipe Israel off the map.

The problem not the technology. It is the uses that evil men can make of it. Depriving ourselves of the benefits of the technology will not change the motivations of evil, nor will it make it less likely that they will try to exploit it.

Nick G said at May 24, 2009 2:06 PM:

The Russians are willing to do all of the enrichment...

Iran has had it's neighbor Afghanistan invaded by the UK, Russia & the US, and it's other neighbor Iraq controlled by Turkey, the UK, and the US. It's had it's first democracy overthrown by the US. Why would it want to give control over a key energy tech to one of these powers?

Further, that's indirect: it's not evidence. Existing nuclear agreements permit acquisition of the complete nuclear fuel cycle. This appears to be a clear example of how someone who wants to can get a "near-weapons" capability that allows a weapons capability.

So, why wouldn't we want to make development & commercialization of proliferation-proof clean-energy tech a very high priority?

Engineer-Poet said at May 25, 2009 8:48 AM:

Quoth Fat Man:

Heavy vehicles such as locomotives, buses, and off-highway trucks make up 10% of all vehicles in the United States but account for half of all fuel consumption.
Some reporter is an idiot.  US gasoline consumption is ~9 million bbl/day, distillate fuel oil used in transport is about a third of that.

Quoth Nick G:

My main concern about conventional nuclear power is it's link to weapons proliferation.
What link?  No commercial PWR has ever been used to make weapons material.  The requirements for power production (high burnup) and production of weapons-grade Pu (processing after very short irradiation to minimize Pu-238 and Pu-240) are completely incompatible.

Countries which have created weapons-grade Pu have used research reactors.  If a country has only LWRs and buys its fuel (no enrichment capability to divert), there is no proliferation risk.

Any thoughts about molten salt reactors in this regard?
See LeBlanc's presentation.  He's got the facts for you; unless you do Pa-233 separation, MSR is even less attractive to proliferators than LWR.
The link is quite tight (e.g., France's electricity is 60% nuclear, and they're the only continental nuclear power).
Post-hoc fallacy.  The problem isn't the PWR, it's the fuel cycle and research reactors.  France recovers Pu from LWR fuel (which the USA does not), but makes its bombs the old-fashioned way.
Why did Israel bomb the nuclear power plant in Iraq? Why do nuclear power plants scattered across the Middle East make us nervous?
The Osirak reactor was a 40 MW unit designed for testing materials... IOW, short-term neutron irradiation, not power.  We're concerned about ME nuclear programs because they demand either more such reactors (not PWRs) or fuel cycles which can make weapons-grade uranium.
why wouldn't we want to make development & commercialization of proliferation-proof clean-energy tech a very high priority?
Because, if the MSR can deliver on its promise of a 50%-70% life-cycle cost reduction over LWR, plus radical reduction or elimination of fuel enrichment (depending whether denatured-uranium converters or thorium breeders are used), PLUS elimination of fuel fabrication, the entire nuclear business which exists today would die.  There's no commercial constituency to cannibalize it.  This initiative will have to come from government (with lots of political pushback), and the people most interested in the ends have also been least willing to consider the means.  Maybe we can change that now, but I'm not going to bet the rent.

Randall Parker said at May 25, 2009 9:41 AM:

MSR at half the cost of LWR: This would stop wind in its tracks. Why bother with unreliable wind if nuclear becomes cheap?

I can't figure out how wind is supposed to be able to scale given just how far down wind generation can fall on a calm day. Does wind require a huge amount of backup generation capacity?

Nick G said at May 25, 2009 10:20 AM:

Quoth E-P,

We're concerned about ME nuclear programs because they demand either more such reactors (not PWRs) or fuel cycles which can make weapons-grade uranium.

Well, isn't that enough reason to be concerned? If we want to set an example for the world, and develop tech that we want to export, shouldn't we concentrate on MSRs and wind/solar? We may not think that our efforts will change the course of policy, but individuals matter...

Engineer-Poet said at May 25, 2009 11:55 AM:

Yes, it is politically desirable (from the standpoint of proliferation) to develop MSRs.  (MSRs can supply heat for the reheat step of CAES, so wind and MSR can actually be symbiotic.)

Our existing nuclear industry does not find it desirable.  If we're going to actually do this, the initiative has to come from Washington to revive the technology now sitting in Oak Ridge National Lab, gathering dust.

Randall Parker said at May 25, 2009 11:59 AM:

E-P,

CAES: Compressed Air Energy Storage? If so, why not use nukes to store the air and to reheat? I'm not clear why use wind if nukes become cheap. Care to explain?

A government push for MSR: I'm all for it.

Engineer-Poet said at May 25, 2009 12:00 PM:

One advantage wind has over MSR is that a wind farm can go from making a deal to flipping the switch in 18 months; it's hard to see a planning cycle for nuclear taking less than 5 years.  It's easier to add small increments of energy as needed with wind, and if it is combined with CAES (which can provide days of backup capacity at rated power) it dovetails nicely.

Nick G said at May 25, 2009 5:35 PM:

I can't figure out how wind is supposed to be able to scale given just how far down wind generation can fall on a calm day.

See my comments on the post.

Does wind require a huge amount of backup generation capacity?

No. First, the 2% you note was in just one region. 2nd, Demand Response (aka Demand Side Management) can provide a lot of what's needed.

Travis Monitor said at June 1, 2009 4:02 PM:

"We would need to build around 400 nuclear power stations to replace the 100 or so elderly ones we have and to get to France's 80% of total electric supply by nuclear. To add electric cars to the load will require another few hundred nuclear power stations. Plus a greatly expanded power grid."

That sounds like an excellent reason to build 400 nuclear power plants. Let's get it done.

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