Three cathode chemistries to dominate $430bln-Li-ion market – report

Electric cars outside the British Columbia legislature.

The Li-ion market is expected to grow to over $430 billion by 2033, driven by demand for electric vehicles, a recent report by IDTechEx predicts.

According to the market analyst, electric vehicles remain the key driver behind the Li-ion market, and electric cars will be the largest market for Li-ion batteries over the next 10 years. As a result of its growing importance, the EV market is expected to be a key determinant of the Li-ion battery technologies used and developed from now on.

Looking at cathode choices specifically, IDTechEx notes that the past decade has seen the majority of the EV market outside China rely on NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide) and NCA (nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide) cathodes due to their high energy density, which provides long EV ranges.

These technologies, however, have evolved over time. As an example, the report mentions the increasing nickel content used in cathode materials to the detriment of the amount of cobalt.

“NMC 111 (equal parts Ni, Mn, Co) has been replaced by NMC 532 and NMC 622, the use of NMC 811 is expanding, and major cathode manufacturers are looking to move toward 90+% nickel in NMC and NCA,” the dossier points out. “This is being driven by a desire to reduce expensive and potentially problematically sourced cobalt, as well as to increase capacity and energy density as much as possible. Difficulties remain in ensuring the safety and longevity of these materials.”

In the view of the market analyst, while NMC and NCA cathodes will remain important, especially in Europe and North America, pressures seen on battery prices through 2021 and 2022, and the potential for future material supply disruptions, will continue to force EV makers and battery manufacturers to re-think strategies. Examples are Tesla, Volkswagen, Ford, and Stellantis, who have outlined plans to make use of cheaper LFP (lithium iron phosphate) cathodes in some regions for mass-market or lower-cost vehicle segments.

“LFP has already regained market share over the past two years due to its recapture of EV market share in China in particular. IDTechEx expects LFP’s share of the total Li-ion market (by GWh) to increase over the next 10 years.”

The document also predicts that LFP production capacity will grow at a CAGR of ~31% over the next five years, while NMC and NCA production capacity is expected to grow at a CAGR of ~19%.

“This growth in LFP will be driven by pressure to reduce battery prices for both electric vehicles and stationary battery storage systems. While LFP is already well suited for stationary applications, for an electric vehicle, where energy density remains a key performance metric, technological innovations could help minimize the impact of its lower energy density compared to NMC/NCA and make LFP an even more attractive proposition,” the report states. “These improvements could stem from the use of silicon anodes, cell-to-pack designs, or other drivetrain efficiency gains.”

The problem IDTechEx sees with the push to limit reliance on cobalt and nickel by shifting to LFP is that reliance on China is set to grow, as the vast majority of LFP production is coming from Chinese companies operating domestically with relatively few plans for LFP production outside the country.

The market researcher notes that in addition to the “traditional” cathode chemistries, high manganese cathodes have started garnering attention, with South Korea’s EcoPro BM and Belgium’s Umicore joining BASF in outlining their intention to commercialize high manganese cathodes.

“Development of these cathodes is also driven by a desire to reduce costs, while they also benefit from allowing comparable energy density to NMC/NCA. Voltage fade and low cycle life remain key barriers to adoption,” the whitepaper reads.

LNMO (Lithium Nickel Manganese Oxide) cathodes, which are cobalt-free and high-voltage, may also join the race as they offer comparatively low costs and opportunities for improving the efficiency of battery pack designs.

These cathodes are seen as capable of reducing lithium consumption by having a lower kg/kWh lithium intensity compared to other cathodes, which could become highly important if supply constraints materialize and manufacturers are forced to find ways to minimize the impact of high lithium prices.

The issue with LNMOs is that, like the high-manganese cathodes, cycle life, as well as the need for a stable electrolyte, remain key barriers.

“Ultimately, IDTechEx forecast that NMC, NCA, and LFP will continue to be the dominant cathode materials used through to 2033, with the choice of material determined by a trade-off between price, performance, application suitability, and availability,” the dossier states.

Image source >>> Image by the Province of British Columbia, Flickr.

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