|The humble Lithium-Ion Solar Batteries has built up such a commanding lead in the market that competing technologies may struggle to catch up. That lead will only widen as a wave of planned new lithium-ion factories comes online in the next five years.
The batteries pouring from new factories in China, the U.S., Thailand and elsewhere will further drive down prices, which have already plunged 85 percent since 2010. And the billions spent on factories will create a powerful incentive for the industry to keep tweaking lithium-ion technology, improving it bit by bit, rather than adopting something else.
You’ve probably heard of lithium batteries catching fire in small devices like phones…Well, the discovery of a safe, non-toxic Lithium-Ion Solar Batteries chemistry called LFP (technically lithium iron phosphate or LiFePO4) has brought a new standard to the deep cycle lithium battery market. With this safer (and maintenance-free) LFP battery chemistry and high-quality manufacturing from companies like SimpliPhi and Relion, lithium batteries are becoming widely adopted for off-grid energy storage.
Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) is extremely stable lithium chemistry when compared to almost all other lithium chemistries. The battery is assembled with a naturally safe cathode material (iron phosphate). Compared to other lithium chemistries iron phosphate promotes a strong molecular bond, which withstands extreme charging conditions, prolongs cycle life, and maintains chemical integrity over many cycles. This is what gives these batteries their great thermal stability, long cycle life, and tolerance to abuse. LiFePO4 batteries are not prone to overheat, nor are they disposed to ‘thermal runaway’ and therefore do not over-heat or ignite when subjected to rigorous mishandling or harsh environmental conditions.
Yes, they’re more expensive, but consider their benefits:
● High energy density – a minimum 2.5x that of lead-acid batteries
● Highly efficient so you get out most of what you put in – very little energy is lost as heat
● Outstanding life expectancy – up to 10,000 cycles
● No maintenance or memory problems – there’s no need to exercise them (periodic discharging and recharging), so they’re great for both full-time and intermittent/infrequent applications
● No additional cost for the sealed format – all LFP batteries are sealed and can be installed in a living space, and in any orientation
Aside from the initial cost, the major disadvantages of lithium solar batteries are the same as other batteries – low performance at freezing temperatures, and damage if operated above maximum or below minimum parameters. SimpliPhi has implemented a real-time equalization circuit – the weaker cells are dynamically cared for so they’re not over-stressed. This in combination with the solid-state protection circuit makes for highly reliable and effective off-grid energy storage.
Budget approximately $1.20/Wh for small systems, or as little as $1/Wh for large systems.
Lithium batteries are an assembly composed of many cells, like lead-acid batteries and many other battery types. Lead-acid batteries have a nominal voltage of 2V/cell, whereas lithium battery cells have a nominal voltage of 3.2V. Therefore, to achieve a 12V battery you’ll typically have four cells connected in a series. This will make the nominal voltage of a LiFePO4 12.8V. Eight cells connected in a series make a 24V battery with a nominal voltage of 25.6V and sixteen cells connected in a series make a 48V battery with a nominal voltage of 51.2V. These voltages work very well with your typical 12V, 24V, and 48V inverters.
Lithium batteries are often used to directly replace the lead-acid batteries because they have very similar charging voltages. A four-cell LiFePO4 Battery (12.8V), will typically have a max charge voltage between 14.4-14.6V (depending on manufacturers’ recommendations). What’s unique to a lithium battery is that it does not need an absorption charge or to be held in a constant voltage state for significant periods of time. Typically, when the battery reaches the max charge voltage it no longer needs to be charged. The discharge characteristics of LiFePO4 batteries is also unique. During discharge, lithium batteries will maintain a much higher voltage than lead-acid batteries typically would under load. It’s not uncommon for a lithium battery to only drop a few tenths of a volt from a full charge to 75% discharged. This can make it difficult to tell how much capacity has been used without battery monitoring equipment.
A significant advantage of lithium over lead-acid batteries is that they do not suffer from deficit cycling. Essentially, this is when the batteries cannot be fully charged before being discharged again the next day. This is a very big problem with lead-acid batteries and can promote significant plate degradation if repeatedly cycled in this manner. LiFePO4 batteries do not need to be fully charged regularly. In fact, it’s possible to slightly improve overall life expectancy with a slight partial charge instead of a full charge.
Not everyone is convinced that lithium-ion can do it all. Some big automakers pine for a breakthrough technology that will enable long-range electric vehicles, capable of traveling perhaps 500 miles on a charge, that will finally persuade reluctant consumers that they won’t run out of power on the road. Toyota Motor Corp., for example, has far more patents and patent applications for solid-state batteries than any other company and is investing $13.9 billion in its battery operations.
The need to store renewable power in bulk could require alternative battery technologies. Although companies such as Tesla Inc. and Dynegy Inc. have already begun plugging lithium-ion batteries into the grid, the installations typically supply electricity for just four hours. Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a February interview with Bloomberg, said that kind of short-term energy storage won’t help integrate large amounts of renewable power. “It’s not going to handle a day, a week, a month, a season,” said Moniz, who recently co-wrote a report calling for far more research investment in batteries. “That’s why you need different approaches.”
Many alternatives, from flywheels to flow batteries, have failed to catch on while the market grows more and more comfortable with lithium-ion. Primus Power of California, for example, offers a flow battery that can produce 25 kilowatts of electricity for five hours, and Chief Executive Officer Tom Stepien said improvements to the current design could boost output to seven or eight hours. Flow batteries pump liquid electrolytes through the battery’s cells when electricity is needed.
“Lithium is a sprinter,” he said. “Flow is a marathon runner.” But Stepien acknowledges the difficulty of convincing potential customers to bet on less-familiar technology. Primus has deployed 30 of its systems to date, mostly over the last three years. “Lithium is more bankable, all the rage, what everyone is going to today—for sure,” Stepien said.
That staying power has attracted entrepreneurs who insist lithium-ion batteries have room for major improvements, not just incremental gains.
Lithium batteries offer many benefits over other battery chemistries. They are a safe and reliable battery solution, with no fear of thermal runaway and/or catastrophic meltdown, which is a significant possibility from other lithium battery types. These batteries offer extremely long cycle life, with lithium-ion solar battery manufacturers even warranting batteries for up to 10,000 cycles. With high discharge and recharge rates upwards of C/2 continuous and a round-trip efficiency of up to 98%, it’s no wonder these batteries are gaining traction within the industry. Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) is a perfect energy storage solution.
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