Smartphones, laptops, scooters, and electric cars. Every second more devices are electrified. One thing unites these increasingly important technologies: lithium-ion batteries. With more and more electrically powered devices and machinery in the future, the demand for energy storage technology is predicted to explode.
The efficient storage of renewable energy is becoming more and more important in the face of growing scarcity of resources and environmental pollution. The future of European battery tech will be pivotal in the transition as the sustainability space changes. But how can lithium ion reach its potential? And which startups are creating more efficient batteries and energy storage solutions as the world increases dependency upon batteries?
TechFounders and UnternehmerTUM, firmly support the ambition to unleash the synergies between economic success and a positive impact on people and the planet. Together with our corporate partners, the TechFounders program has developed startups paving the way in battery technology. In our latest batch @Voltfang equipped an @ALDI Nord warehouse with an energy storage solution from 2nd life electric vehicle batteries startup whilst Batch #6 startup @GBatteries developed a charging technology that enables lithium-ion batteries to charge in minutes, rather than hours.
Having already started to do so, VCs will soon pay even more attention to startups involved in the energy transition. According to MarketsAndMarkets, the global lithium-ion battery (LiB) market alone reached a value of approx. US$44.2 billion in 2020. Enhanced focus on sustainable development and a growing awareness of the adverse effects of traditional automobiles have also propelled market growth. In 2025, the global LiB market size is estimated to more than double to US$94.4 billion –a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.4%. A significant increase in the adoption of consumer electronics on a global level represents the primary factor driving market growth. Along with this, LiBs form an indispensable component of electric vehicles (EVs). Corporates are also taking notice. TechFounders’ corporate partners Festo, Knorr-Bremse and Miele are constantly searching for the next “soonicorn” working on products in the areas of energy efficiency and battery lifetime optimization.
Issues with Lithium
Despite many advantages, classic lithium-ion batteries still come with many challenges. Research areas for LiBs include extending lifetime, increasing energy density, improving safety (remember the Galaxy Note 7?), reducing cost, and most importantly decreasing their social and environmental footprint.
Lithium is primarily mined within the ‘Lithium Triangle’, including Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Mining for other compounds such as cobalt mainly occurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which holds more than half of the world’s cobalt resources. Several reports indicate that the mining process takes place under exploitative conditions, where workers are neither paid fairly nor protected from contact with toxins resulting in multiple fatal casualties.
What is a LiB?
A lithium-ion battery (LiB) is a rechargeable battery that utilizes lithium-ion as an energy carrier. Consisting of an anode, cathode, and electrolyte, it is an electrochemical storage device that is among the most advanced energy storage technologies today, benefiting from its intelligent use of materials and Nobel-prize-winning design. Most LiBs use an intercalated compound like lithium cobalt oxide as the material for the cathode, typically graphite for the anode and a liquid electrolyte.
powerful (high capacity & highly flexible)
efficient (high energy density & low rate of self-discharge)
long-lasting (can be discharged and recharged many times without losing their storage capacity) and
easily manageable (low maintenance & no requirement for priming)
In addition to South America, lithium mining has increased significantly in the Democratic Republic of Congo and China.
However, increased demand for LiBs is not without damage done to the environment. The mining of lithium and other compounds such as cobalt is associated with enormous environmental burdens: high water and energy consumption, soil, water, and air pollution from toxic substances, non-recyclable land waste, and extreme interference with entire landscapes. Research from the Battery University shows much work is being done to make lithium-ion battery cells safer, more environmentally friendly, and socially responsible.
In recent years, startups have been at the forefront of disrupting an industry sometimes guilty of relying on the status quo. In the next section, we have identified several European startups that we expect to shift the energy storage industry to a greener, safer, and more responsible future.
With its current cell design, LiBs rely heavily on scarce and toxic materials. Nevertheless, groundbreaking research on the families of disruptive materials is expected to mitigate this socially and ecologically problematic dependency. New innovative compounds also consider the scarcity and criticality of materials. For example, cobalt-free designs such as lithium manganese oxide do not require any cobalt compounds at all. Unfortunately, there remains work to be done until cobalt alternatives reach the same capacity as traditional LiBs. New-generation LiBs could be ideal for use in applications such as energy storage systems for renewables where high energy, high power and safety is mandatory.
In lithium-sulfur batteries the graphite anode is replaced by lithium metal whereas the cobalt oxide cathode is substituted with cheaper and lighter sulfur. By virtue of the low atomic weight of lithium and the moderate weight of sulfur, lithium-sulfur batteries offer a very high weight specific energy about three times that of lithium-ion. The lithium-sulfur battery is surely one of the most promising next generation energy storage devices. Sulfur’s properties as a low-cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly, and abundantly available substance allows super high theoretical energy mass density compared to commercial lithium-ion models. Although commercial adoption of lithium sulfur is still held back by a low number of charge-discharge cycles, its light weight makes it a good fit for the aviation and space industry.
In conventional lithium-ion batteries, ions move from one electrode to another across a liquid electrolyte. Solid-state batteries represent a paradigm shift in terms of how ions migrate within the battery. The liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid compound with polymers and inorganic compounds being the most promising substitute right now. Solid-state batteries are non-flammable when heated, unlike their liquid counterparts. Second, the use of high-capacity materials enables denser and lighter batteries increasing the power-to-weight-ratio, which might be ideal for use in electric vehicles. Challenges include poor conductivity at cool temperatures and a low cycle count. Solid-state prototypes are said to only reach 100 cycles at this point.
Inexpensive and readily available, Sodium-ion represents a possible lower-cost alternative to lithium-ion Its working principle and cell construction are almost identical with those of the commercially widespread lithium-ion battery types, but sodium compounds are used instead of lithium compounds. The largest advantage of sodium-ion batteries is the high natural abundance of sodium. This type of battery represents a complete shift in cell design as lithium-ion is not a necessity anymore. Nevertheless, challenges to adoption include low energy density and a limited number of charge-discharge cycles. Sodium-ion could potentially replace the traditional LiB in grid-storage and home storage applications, where battery weight is not important.
When to expect the next leap in battery tech?
Numerous other materials and designs are currently being explored, which will help in the transition to a more efficient, wireless, and sustainable world. Despite this, there are many reasons that prevent the commercialization of certain breakthroughs. While some futuristic batteries may find a niche market or a very specific application, many never step outside the lab to see the light of day, not to mention advance to power the electric powertrain. Battery research remains immensely capital- and time-intensive. Until this changes, much work remains to be done if alternative battery technologies are to outperform the tried-and-tested lithium-ion battery.
If you’re a founder of a startup in battery development, keep an eye out for TechFounders’ upcoming application phase in February 2022. We and our corporate partners are always on the lookout for novel, sustainable solutions to transform industries to fit the future.