Equipment, other than coaters, is not interchangeable, for example, you can’t change some simple tooling to make large prismatic cells in a factory designed for 18650 production. Most of the equipment in Li-ion manufacture is highly specific to the cell design. Winders for cylindrical cells are an exception. They can have different tooling that allows different configurations, i.e. electrode lengths, thicknesses, etc., to be run. Of course, the extremely high quality machines are often custom designed for one type, and only one type, of cell. This means that if you want to produce multiple different cell lines, you need sets of tooling and to be completely efficient, multiple pieces of manufacturing equipment. This puts one choke point in Li-ion production.
A second choke point is the materials themselves. Li-ion cells use a number of materials that have several uses. Lithium carbonate, aluminum, copper, steel, nickel, and a host of other materials are used for countless other products. When you couple this with the fact that there are a limited number of suppliers of high quality materials for battery manufacture, you have a recipe for shortages at all points of the manufacturing process.
The last choke point that I will comment on is the true capacity to manufacture cells. It takes 2-5 years to plan and build a Li-ion factory of any size. This assumes that you have everything laid out and don’t hit any bumps in the road. That doesn’t account for the time to optimize line production, test and validate all processes, and then test and validate all cells that come off of the production line. I don’t have a good timeline for this. From my experience, it takes at least 6-8 months. Then you have to add more time to that for actual battery manufacture validation and testing.
I will also comment on cost and recycling while I’m in the mood. Cells costs for commodity cell for consumer electronics, i.e. 18650s for laptops and power tools, 26650s for power tools, cell phones, iPods, etc. are nearly as cheap as they are going to get—around $200-400/kWh. Of course I have heard rumors of 18650 pricing dropping even further for some cell lines into the $100-150 range. Any talk of the pricing of automotive-grade Li-ion is just that—talk. Then again, since no cells have met the life claims in any conditions other than bench top testing, one could argue that true automotive-grade Li-ion cells don’t exist, but that is a different can of worms entirely.
Large format Li-ion cells cost closer to $1000-1200/kWh for quality cells. And before this post gets a barrage of links for Chinese-made cells, I quote the price for quality cells, not ones that have 20-50% manufacturing yield. The price for these cells will drop in time (5-10 years), but not just by starting the lines up and by orders of magnitude the press releases state.
And to my tinfoil hat wearing friend (you know who you are), Li-ion are only recycled for the commodity materials used (metal foils). Li can’t be recycled out of the batteries because it is too expensive and difficult to do so. It makes no economic sense to even try. There will come a time when it is both feasible and economically viable to do so, just not right now.
Now, I do have a dog in this fight. I work as a researcher in Li-ion batteries. I would love nothing more than to see Li-ion be used for every application. On the other hand, I am a scientist, and I have to go with the data that I see in front of me. As of today, March 16, 2010, EVs are not the best use of Li-ion and Li-ion isn’t entirely ready for use in EVs. Right now Li-ion is the best for applications where size/weight is of paramount importance and cost is no object.