This story was originally published by WIRED and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The history of battery science is filled with short circuits, explosions — and, occasionally, tales of redemption. One of these is the story of the lithium-iron-phosphate battery.
LFP, as it’s known, (the “F” refers to the Latin name for iron) was discovered as a good battery material in the University of Texas lab of John Goodenough. He was (and is, at 99) a legendary battery scientist, best known for designing the cathode — the crystal structure that catches and releases lithium ions as the battery charges and gets used — that led to the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. LFP, coming a few years after that, seemed to have many advantages over its predecessor. The cathode was stable and long-lasting, and potentially well-suited to powering electric cars. And unlike Goodenough’s previous cathode, it did not depend on cobalt, a relatively pricey metal, but rather on run-of-the-mill iron.
But when Venkat Srinivasan began working on LFP as a postdoc in the early 2000s, his advisers suggested he think about doing something else. “They said, ‘Why are you bothering with this?’” he recalls. For all its promise, LFP did not appear to have a bright future. The government was trying hard to cultivate an LFP battery industry alongside a new market for electric cars, pouring money into the cause. But electric cars weren’t taking off as quickly as hoped, so there was barely a market for batteries to power them. Meanwhile, LFP was being overtaken by newer battery recipes that combined cobalt with nickel to pack more energy.
How odd it is then that 20 years later, LFP is everywhere. Thank Elon Musk. Over the past year, the Tesla CEO has announced a major shift to the older battery chemistry — a necessity, in large part, because batteries are now in such high demand that the industry is headed for a materials supply cliff composed largely of nickel and cobalt. Tesla’s partner in this endeavour is CATL, the massive battery maker in China, where the technology was tended to over the years and quietly flourished, improving to the point that LFP batteries can now suitably power a family sedan. Like most of the major cathode chemistries still in use today, the battery was developed in a U.S. or European lab, but its future is squarely in China, which today manufactures 90 per cent of LFP battery cells, according to Benchmark Minerals. For the U.S., “LFP is a missed opportunity,” Srinivasan says.