The threat of lithium-ion technology taking market share from lead in the battery sector may not be as bad as feared if remarks at Metals Metal Bulletin’s 9th World Lead conference in Krakow at the end of last month are taken to heart. But some continue to trash the reputation of the metal calling it a four-letter word.
While some are ignoring the threat, a majority now accepts that lithium-ion is an established alternative and will continue to take market share from lead in batteries.
“Even without a lead ban, the lithium-ion battery is a serious candidate for automotive applications,” Exide director Olaf Sielemann said.
While the advantages are hyped, lithium is much more expensive – more than three times the price per kilowatt hour – are not easily recyclable and are not a great fit for industrial applications such as lift trucks.
But lithium-based technology is showing exponential growth of 22% per year, according to battery maker EnerSys, although the battery market is still highly dominated by lead, which retains an 80% market share.
Lead-acid batteries, which are cheaper, heavier, highly recyclable and reliable, therefore retain a dominant position in the automotive sector.
The highly publicised threat from hybrid and electric vehicles has also not been as bad as was feared five years ago, markets participants pointed out.
“There are a lot of threats to lead-acid batteries but they always seem to be pushed out,” according to Alex Woodrow, head of research at Knibb, Gormezano and Partners.
“The future doesn’t look too pessimistic for lead-acid right now.” By 2020, in the current cycle of development, demand for lead-acid batteries may peak before easing very slowing until 2030, when it is expected to start to drop sharply, finally falling below that of lithium-ion and electrification around 2040, Woodrow said.
Demand for lead is also supported by the growth in stop-start or micro-hybrid vehicles, which use lead-acid batteries.
According to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG), 50% of all new automotive sales in Europe were start-stop vehicles in 2015, a figure expected to grow to more than 80% by 2020.
The percentage of sales of start-stop vehicles in the USA, Japan and China is lower but is also expected to grow rapidly in the next one or two years, said Paul White, head of research at ILZSG.
“Lead-acid continues to be the battery of choice, but challenges remain,” White said.
However, the lead industry’s research was disputed by consultants at IDTechx, reporting from the Battery Show Europe, last Tuesday on the progress of 48 volt mild hybrids.
“They will increasingly steal the clothes of full hybrids with lower cost and easier introduction. However, what is not happening is abandonment of the 12V battery,” IDTecX said.
In addition, “lead-acid 48V batteries will not get any significant part of the action. Lead is a four letter word nowadays and so there are both image and technical reasons why 48V lead-acid batteries now offered by many suppliers will be losers”.
Commenting Alistair Davidson of the Advanced Lead acid battery consortium said: “Whilst the industry is no means complacent to threat from alternative technologies, the outlook for lead batteries remains firmly positive. This includes 48 V applications, where the work of ALABC has clearly demonstrated that lead batteries are the most cost effective option for mild hybrids”.