Getting more out of your Li-ion batteries 

Lithium demand at an all-time high, and growing.

We are in a transition. The world is moving full steam ahead towards an electric society – a society that is trying to reduce net carbon emissions, reach climate goals and hold off the worst consequences of climate change. To make the transition possible, new materials and technologies are needed, and lithium has emerged as the poster-element for the transition.

It is increasingly clear how integral a sustainable and predictable lithium supply chain is for electric vehicles (EVs), energy storage, and electricity networks. According to the International Energy Association (IEA), lithium will be the most in-demand mineral by 2040.1 Even by 2030, the demand for lithium is estimated to be about 2 Mt to accommodate a global 2000 GWh energy demand. This is a 4-fold increase in a decade, and it is believed that the rapid adoption of EVs may even cause us to outpace this prediction.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Growth in demand for selected battery-related minerals from clean energy technologies in 2040 relative to 2020 levels. STEPS and SDS represent two different scenarios related to climate policies to estimate demand with STEPS being the most likely scenario stated by the IEA. Index units are arbitrary to show growth.

How much lithium is on Earth?

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Earth’s crust to contain approximately 88 billion tons of lithium with about one quarter (22 billion tons) being viably minable, known as reserves2. Taking a modest estimate of 8 kg of lithium needed per EV, we could produce close to 3 billion EVs – about double the number of cars currently on the road3.

This amount of lithium could carry the transition to the mid-century, and thankfully, the amount in reserves typically increases over time as we invent better ways to extract the ore.

Perhaps this is good news from a supply perspective, but the margin is far tighter than what should be comfortable. And although current lithium reserves may meet the current electric transition demand, one of the main issues is the ability to produce lithium at this scale.

Lithium production must scale   in the next decade to produce enough for the 4-fold increase in demand. So even though there is enough lithium, artificial shortages and supply chain issues could still be common if production speed and gigafactory output cannot meet demand.


Can we cushion ourselves from running short of this critical material?

Perhaps you remember the movie Limitless where Bradley Cooper takes a pill that allows him to use his brain to its full potential. Well, what if we could do the same with lithium?

One might hold the misconception that a battery uses all its capacity when it operates. However, due to interfacial instabilities and parasitic reactions with the electrolyte, most state-of-the-art Li-ion battery cathodes can only be operated at voltages ≤ 4.2V. Thus,using only about 50% of the onboard Li content of the cathode, to avoid massive losses of active material and crystal structure rearrangement.

Major efforts have been undertaken to make stable, high-voltage cathodes, stable anodes and complementary electrolytes, but the few materials that have emerged still suffer from poor Coulombic efficiency and structural degradation. Without the ability to maintain high reversible capacity, their higher voltage operation is a futile effort.

Remember that energy capacity as measured in Wh is a battery’s nominal capacity in Amp-hours (Ah) multiplied by voltage (V). By operating at smaller voltages, we only use a fraction of a battery’s potential energy capacity.

But what if, like in Limitless, we could engineer a way to use much more? And what if the key was only a few nanometers of material?


More energy for the same material

Forge Nano has introduced a solution called Atomic Armor™ to combat the structural instabilities of electrodes and extract more capacity out of batteries.

Atomic Armor is essentially a very thin shell, l , that surrounds individual cathode and anode particles. It is applied with a method called atomic layer deposition, or ALD, which results in extremely precise thickness growth of a highly robust, defect-free coating.

Atomic Armor protects the active material against parasitic reactions with the electrolyte, which can be chemically unstable when the battery operates at increased voltages and temperatures.  

But most importantly, Forge Nano’s ALD process also prevents transition  

Figure 2

Figure 2. TEM images of uncoated NCA (a) and Al2O3-coated NCA (b) prior to electrochemical cycling and the same cathodes respectively (c,d) extracted from batteries after 100 cycles at 3–4.8 V (1C/1C charge-discharge rates). Adapted from Monhanty et al. Figure 65.

Figure 2 showcases well the ability of ALD coatings to maintain the structural integrity of cathode particles at high voltages. The TEM images show that the uncoated NCA particles experienced significant cracking and crystal structure degradation after cycling for 100 1C/1C cycles at a voltage window of 3.0 – 4.8V. The Al2O3 ALD coating, however, not only prevented major changes in the lattice, but also halted the propagation of any cracking at the surface into the particle’s bulk.

In fact, by preventing these failure mechanisms, ALD can drastically increase the first cycle Coulombic efficiency of the cells and allow batteries to be operated at higher voltages. This not only means you start with a higher initial capacity, but your reversible capacity is also much higher, making the same battery capable of delivering much more energy than before. 

Let’s look at some test data where electrode materials were upgraded using Forge Nano’s Atomic Armor.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Relative capacity of a cell cycled at 4.2V with a pristine graphite anode and an Atomic-Armor coated graphite anode.

Figure 3 compares the relative capacity of a cell cycled at 4.2V with an uncoated graphite anode to a cell containing an anode coated with Atomic Armor. By protecting electrodes with Atomic Armor, we gain an 11% increase in reversible capacity, even without having to cycle at a higher voltage. Without losing lithium to reactions at the electrode surfaces, the amount of lithium we can move back and forth is much higher, giving us much more energy from the cell.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Discharge capacity of an uncoated LCO cell operated at 4.4V with durability cycling of 0.5C/1C and the same formulation with Atomic-Armor coated electrodes operated at 4.5V.

Figure 4 takes this enhancement even further. Figure 4 shows the discharge capacity during cycling of an uncoated cell cycled at 4.4V and a cell with Atomic Armor-coated electrodes cycled at 4.5V. The combination of higher voltage operation with protected electrodes improved the initial discharge capacity of the battery by 18%. In addition, the higher voltage operation did not affect the lifetime of the cell, meaning, with Atomic Armor, you can get much more energy from a battery without sacrificing its lifetime.

The cells in Figure 4 are examples of batteries that could be used for consumer electronic applications where the target is 200 cycles. If this represented a cell phone, the higher discharge capacity means that one charge could last, for example, for two days instead of one.

Controlling lithium demand

So why does this all matter? Well, while we cannot necessarily change the future demand for lithium, we can certainly use it more efficiently to minimize the extraction burden. With batteries able to operate at higher voltages with anywhere from 10-18% more reversible capacity, suddenly, we have more energy output on our hands without changing the amount of lithium in the cell.

For example, the North American battery manufacturing ecosystem plans to output 1000 GWh of capacity by 2030. If the capacity of every battery was improved by just 10%, this 1000 GWh factory output is now rated at 1100 GWh, which would reduce the need for multiple new gigafactories and save 100,000 tons of processed Li per year of raw material needs, the equivalent of 1,000,000 tons per year of mined out-of-the-ground materials during ore extraction . This is also equivalent to saving between 1.1 to 3.7 million tons of CO2 emissions and 1.8 to 8 million cubic meters of water annually6.

In fact, according to a study on lithium availability by McKinsey & Co., while we can meet lithium demand in the short-term, there is about a 400,000-ton supply deficit anticipated by 20307. Figure 5 shows the current projection for energy and lithium demand to 2030. If all batteries were protected with Atomic Armor, the capacity improvements would reduce lithium needs enough to meet all energy demand by the turn of the decade with current known supplies. In the best-case scenario where all batteries experienced the highest capacity improvements Forge Nano has shown, there could still be a surplus of lithium by 2030.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Lithium and energy demands and known lithium supplies up to 2030. The Atomic Armor Base Scenario shows the Li demand after a 10% increase in gigafactory output. The Atomic Armor High Scenario shows demand after an 18% output increase. Adapted from McKinsey & Co. 2022 report on lithium demand7.

By using our lithium more efficiently with Atomic Armor, we can drastically reduce the burden on lithium production and provide a path towards ‘working smarter’, giving any Atomic Armor entity an edge for using lithium more efficiently, how to recycle batteries at a higher rate, and offering a more competitive product.

Practically, companies can safely provide higher capacity outputs without worrying about supply chain shortages; as consumers, we worry less about paying astronomical prices if Lithum runs in short supply.

Let Forge Nano’s Atomic Armor™ be the pill to that makes our batteries “Li-mitless.”

If you are an electrode or cell manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries interested in increasing the capacity of your products, contact us now for a demo on your materials.