Battery technology: A disruptive force transforming industrial landscape

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: January 11, 2019 21:08:55 | Updated: January 15, 2019 21:21:59

Sleeping battery technology has a history that spans over 300 years. Over past few decades, it has grown as a major disruptive force. Although many disruptive technologies had roots in defence sector, this civilian application technology is transforming industries and changing the geographical nucleus of the global industrial economy.

Until 1991, the battery was an auxiliary technology having very little effect on the success of innovation and competitive advantage. But, all that began to change with Sony's unveiling of the lithium-ion battery in the early 1990s.

Earlier, to make their portable and compact digital camera successful, Sony had conducted more than a decade-long research on digital image sensor technology. After this, Sony was badly in search for a high energy density, rechargeable battery. Conventional battery technologies like alkaline, nickel-cadmium or lead-acid, available during the 1980s, were not suitable for Sony's innovation. To address this critical barrier, in 1991, Sony released the lithium-ion rechargeable battery with higher energy density. This lithium-ion battery played a key role in disrupting film-based imaging industry-it made the iconic Kodak go bankrupt. That is how the journey of battery, as an underlying force that can cause disruption, began.

With the emergence of mobile phones, there was need for increasingly lighter and affordable battery that could support longer talk-times. The advent of smartphones stepped up the demand for more powerful, but very compact battery. To address this, researchers kept improving lithium-ion battery technology.

According to the US Department of energy, the capability of this technology to store energy in per unit of volume of material, known as energy density, has been continuously increasing. Improvements were made four times between 2008 till 2022. During this period, battery cost is expected to fall 10 times.

The growth of battery technology has made the smartphone be the disruptive force against many products like compact cameras, portable music players, hand-held video cameras, personal digital assistants and others. This remarkable progress has not only supported the smartphone revolution but also opened scope for causing further disruptions in major industries.

For battery technology, each stage of success has ushered in new possibilities for the road ahead. The continued growth of energy density, reduction of cost, and dropping of charging time have created the opportunity for replacing polluting gasoline engines with battery, thus posing a threat to disrupt gasoline engine industry.

Californian start-up Tesla is no longer alone in pursuing the electric vehicle (EV). German and Japanese automobile behemoths have taken massive steps to unveil EV versions of their favourite car models.

Predicting the role of battery at causing a new wave in the automobile industry, China has adopted a strategy to craft an entry path where they will lead the next generation of global automobile industry. The electric vehicle, which requires less mechanical complexity and relies more on electronic prowess, is easing the catch-up barrier for Chinese automakers, who were struggling at mainstreaming their cars with mechanical engines that look like foreign-made ones. For example, according to MIT Technology Review, a Chevrolet Bolt's electric engine contains just 24 moving segments. In comparison, a Volkswagen Golf's combustion engine's has 149. 

China's growth in battery technology, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of global supply capacity, has forced even German Chancellor Angela Merkel to nervously observe that German carmakers will be forced to rely on Asia for key components of electric vehicles. It's being predicted that China and other Asian countries like Japan and Korea who an edge in battery technology can disrupt the global leadership of the automobile industry. Even Tesla's cars are being powered by lithium-ion battery cells supplied by Asian Panasonic. 

The production of electric energy through coal, natural gas, and liquid fuel has been the major cause of greenhouse gas emission. On one hand, the world is fast running out of fossil fuel reserves. On the other hand, pollution caused by fossil fuel emissions is increasing with every passing day. To address this, energy production from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro are sustainable solutions. But intermittence has been an issue, as neither the sun shines nor the wind blows all the time. The continued progress of battery technology is opening the possibility to connect all these intermittent micro-renewable energy sources with a large battery reservoir that can make fossil or nuclear fuel redundant. Already, the South Australian government has formed a partnership with Tesla to build a 250 MW virtual power plant by rolling out solar panels and battery to power at least 50,000 homes. Harnessing this potential will cause disruption not only in the conventional electric power industry, but also on the national economies of many countries in the Middle East, and other parts of the world. 

The dominance of Asia in battery technology for powering consumer electronics to designing efficient electric vehicles is also pointing to the possibility of another major disruption-shifting of the nucleus of the global industrial economy. In the 18th century, under the leadership of the United Kingdom (UK), Europe capitalised the steam engine to lead the first industrial revolution, making Europe the global centre of the industrial economy. Later, the USA took advantage of the internal combustion engine, initially to power the largest automotive fleet of the world, and also electricity for lighting and industrial applications to establish the global leadership. But in this phase of powering the industrial economy from green sources, Asia appears to be in the lead in battery technology.

Unlike many other technologies, battery technology has a very long life and it did not enter with a big bang. It started the journey in a very humble manner. During the 20th century, the battery was never considered a key technology to establish an innovation edge. It was rather a commodity. But the introduction of the lithium-ion battery by Sony in 1991 changed all that.

The battery has become a pivotal technology that can shape the emerging electric vehicle industry. This has thus created a possibility where Asia, instead of Europe and the USA, will lead the green vehicle revolution. It will be interesting to witness how this unfolds over the next few decades.

M Rokonuzzaman PhD is academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy.

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