Where did the Lithium Ion battery come from?

A prequel to our earlier blog post “What is an 18650 Battery”, we’re taking a quick trip back to the roots of the Li-ion battery story…

The Li-ion battery at the time of writing is the most widely manufactured, distributed and used form of portable rechargeable power and exists in everything from toothbrushes right up to electric vehicles and literally everything in between. If it has an internal battery and can be recharged, chances are its using a Lithium Ion chemistry battery.

It wasn’t always this way however…

The concept was first proposed by Michael Stanley Whittingham back in the 1970’s. Having completed his BA, MA and Dphil at Oxford University he began work for Exxon Research and Engineering and here he pioneered the earliest version of the Lithium Ion battery. Exxon went on to develop the earliest designs using a titanium disulphide cathode and lithium aluminium anode. Unfortunately, the titanium disulphide element back in the 1970’s was incredibly expensive at around $1000 per kg and alongside safety concerns of titanium disulphide reacting to form highly toxic hydrogen sulphide, production became so uneconomical that it was eventually shelved. There were also serious safety concerns over the use of metallic lithium electrodes at the time and instead, research moved toward batteries where rather than a metallic lithium electrode, they would only use lithium compounds capable of accepting and releasing lithium ions.

Through the late 70’s and into the 1980’s, research continued and building on the initial concept proposed by Whittingham. In 1979, Ned a Godshall (along with John Goodenough the following year) both demonstrated what would become the basis for the modern Li-Ion cell using a lithium cobalt dioxide positive electrode and lithium metal as the negative. Later that year, Rachid Yazamo became the first to demonstrate reversible electrochemical intercalation of lithium in graphite and this remains the most commonly used electrode in Lithium ion batteries.

John Goodenough (now 97 years old and still working as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at The University of Texas), Rachid Yazami (Inventor of the Graphite anode and still working on advancing cell technology) and Akira Yoshino (a Japanese chemist) helped Sony and Asahi Kasei to commercialise the Lithium Ion cell in 1991.

Since the first cells were mass produced by Sony in 1991, there have been chemistry and thus performance tweaks along the way. In 1996, Goodenough, Akshaya Padhi and their co-workers first proposed Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) as a positive electrode material. Offering a far higher C rate, LiFePO4 chemistry has found its way into thousands of high drain application products worldwide.

In 2001, Zhonghu Chiang and Jeff Dahn filed the first patent for a lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide electrode (Also known as LiNiMnCoO2 or simply “NMC”)  offering a boost in energy density and improving on the safety of the chemistry. This is now one of the most widely used chemistries in Electric Vehicles.

Fast-forward a few years to 2004 and Yet-Ming Chiang provided probably the biggest performance increasing breakthrough to date – by using lithium iron phosphate particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter he was able to increase particle density over 100x resulting in increased positive electrode surface area and vastly improving capacity. This led to a rapid growth in the market for lithium ion batteries and in turn, a patent infringement case between Chiang and Goodenough.

By 2011, Lithium-ion batteries accounted for 66% of all portable second (rechargeable) battery sales.

Today, and the future…

The advantages of Lithium Ion batteries are still being discovered and as a result, sales have continued to grow and the last decade at its most accelerated rate. Between 2010 and 2018, the cost of Lithium Ion batteries fell 85% on the back of usage driven by consumer electronics and Electric Vehicle production having increased tenfold in the last 5 years. Reuters estimates that the global Lithium Ion battery market will be worth an estimated 100 billion dollars by 2025.

So there we have it. A brief history of time in the eyes of the Lithium Battery invention, development and market. Consider a world without them, and it’s a very different place indeed!


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