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The battery that's changing everything

The battery market's massive transformation has unlocked countless product innovations — but restrictions on its core materials could prove problematic in due time.

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.

While researchers, battery giants and automakers continue to work on new advancements with batteries, it's becoming increasingly clear that low-cost, energy-dense lithium-ion batteries are so disruptive that they're starting to change everything.

You think that's an overstatement? Lithium-ion batteries are, indeed, transforming the core of the world's infrastructure: how energy is produced; how electricity is delivered; how goods and people are transported; how buildings operate; how computing devices work; and how the internet runs.

This market transformation was quietly present last week at CalCharge's Battery Summit in Berkeley, California. While the event was focused on future battery innovations — such as sodium batteries, batteries that don't use cobalt and solid-state batteries — many researchers noted that the lithium-ion battery is becoming so successful (low-cost and powerful) that few others can compete right now.

The Li-ion battery has become so good that many think it'll unlock electric aviation. That's right: planes, helicopters and flying cars that use batteries, not diesel. Flights of one to two hours will go electric pretty quickly, noted one battery researcher at the summit. Longer flights will take longer to convert to electric. (Note, NASA and Airbus A^3 will be at VERGE 18 this week speaking on electric aviation). 

The success of the lithium-ion battery also eventually will lead to the unfortunate consequence that the core materials form them will face supply and price constraints.
The success of the lithium-ion battery also eventually will lead to the unfortunate consequence that the core materials form them will face supply and price constraints (certain materials such as lithium are already facing price jumps). That's pretty far down the road, but at some point it'll happen.

Cobalt is the biggest bugaboo for the lithium-ion battery right now because two-thirds of the world's metal is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of that occurs in "artisanal mines" that sometimes use child labor (see Fortune's excellent piece on that issue). It's a disturbing reality, but it's also pushing companies to invest in trying to build batteries that eliminate, or significantly reduce, the cobalt component. 

Some in the industry are worried about lithium resources, and particularly its water-intensive extraction method of using evaporative ponds. But that problem is leading to some level of innovation, too. For example, a startup featured at the Battery Summit, Lilac Solutions, is building a more efficient way to boost lithium recovery.

Lithium-ion battery constraints are actually a ways off. For now, the big battery giants in Asia are just getting bigger and bigger, building their own giga-factories and cranking out ever-larger volumes of the disruptive battery. 

And of course, Tesla — a company whose entire business model has been based on the rise of the lithium-ion battery — is in a prime position to benefit from a decade of dropping costs. Last week it was reported that Tesla made its 100,000th Model 3. That's a feat that wouldn't be possible without the success of the lithium-ion battery. 

Our VERGE 18 conference is this week (it started Monday!), and it's gonna be quite excellent. Come on by, even if it's just for the Expo (free with code V18EXPO) or via the livestream at VERGE Virtual.

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