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Is sulfur the future for cheaper and better batteries?

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Is sulfur the future for cheaper and better batteries?

Batteries are already the linchpin for certain areas of our lives: both for powering an increasingly electric vehicle fleet and for storing electricity from renewable energy sources on the grid. Today, lithium-ion batteries are the predominant choice for both industries.

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But the greater the need for batteries, the more difficult it will be to find the required materials such as cobalt and nickel, some of which are mined under controversial conditions. An alternative could lie in a cheap, abundant material: sulfur.

US start-up Lyten plans to deliver limited quantities of lithium-sulfur cells, which can be strung together to build batteries of different sizes, to its first customers this year. These include companies from the aerospace and defense industries. If they prove successful, they could also be used in electric cars in the medium term.

When it comes to new options for batteries, “we need something that we can produce in large quantities and quickly. Lithium-sulfur fits the bill,” says Celina Mikolajczak, Chief Battery Technology Officer at Lyten. Sulfur is abundant and inexpensive, which is why lithium-sulfur batteries can be manufactured much more cheaply. The material costs are about half as high as those of lithium-ion cells, says Mikolajczak.

The lithium-sulfur batteries could also outperform the lithium-ion battery in one crucial point: energy density. A lithium-sulfur battery can store almost twice as much energy as a lithium-ion battery of the same weight. This is particularly advantageous for electric vehicles because lower weight means a longer range. However, there are still major technical hurdles that Lyten must overcome to make its products ready for use in electric cars, such as longevity.

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Today’s lithium-ion batteries for electric cars can last 800 cycles or more. This means they can be discharged and recharged 800 times. Lithium-sulfur variants tend to decompose much more quickly. They currently last about 100 cycles, says Shirley Meng, a battery researcher at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

That’s because the chemical reactions that power lithium-sulfur batteries are difficult to contain. Undesirable reactions between lithium and sulfur shorten the lifespan of batteries.

Lyten is not the first company to explore promising lithium-sulfur batteries. The technology has been researched for decades. Some companies, such as Britain’s Oxis Energy, have closed while others, including Sion Power, have moved away from lithium-sulfur. But growing demand for alternatives and increased interest in alternative batteries could see Lyten succeed where previous efforts have failed, Meng says.

Lyten has made progress in extending the life of its batteries, with some samples recently reaching 300 cycles, according to company spokeswoman Mickolajczak. She attributes the success to Lyten’s 3D graphene material, which prevents unwanted side reactions and increases the energy density of the cell. The company also wants to use 3D graphene, which has a more complicated structure than the two-dimensional version, in other products such as sensors and composite materials.

Despite recent advances, Lyten is still a long way from producing batteries that last long enough to power an electric car. In the meantime, the company wants to bring its cells to market where lifespan isn’t quite as important. Because lithium-sulfur batteries can be extremely light, the company works with customers who build drones, for example, where frequent battery changes would be worth the weight savings, says Lyten Chief Sustainability Officer Keith Norman.

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The company opened pilot production in 2023 with a maximum capacity of 200,000 cells per year. It recently began producing a small number of cells, which are expected to be delivered to paying customers later this year. Lyten does not say which customers these are in detail.

Even though lithium-sulfur batteries are still in their early stages, Lyten believes in the potential: As Celina Mikolajczak points out, lithium-ion batteries have continued to improve in terms of cost, lifespan and energy density. This is also what we hope for from alternative technology. Lower material costs are a good start.

(jl)

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