For the past 150 years, lead-acid batteries have been the go-to choice, but in the last few decades, lithium-ion has become the preferred technology not only for portable devices and scooter parts but almost any device or vehicle that runs on rechargeable batteries.
Lithium-ion is a new technology that has taken the world by storm, and, in the article below, we will look at the performance, safety, cost, and ecological footprint of each battery type to see which one is the better choice.
When looking to purchase a battery, one of the most important aspects is its performance since you want to get a product that will last you for a long time in terms of durability and autonomy (discharge time and runtime).
As far as performance is concerned, lithium-ion batteries are by far the winner since they outperform lead-acid batteries in most aspects. For starters, the energy density of lithium-ion units is up to 3 times higher than lead-acid batteries, and this gives it a clear edge when it comes to large-scale applications.
This means that, when looking to power a vehicle, you will need fewer batteries if you go with a lithium-ion alternative. Its energy density is scalable for smaller devices as well, which helps explain why all smartphone manufacturers prefer to use lithium-ion over other battery technologies.
The life cycle of a lithium-ion battery is also much higher than that of a lead-acid counterpart. While lead-acid batteries rarely go beyond 500 charge and recharge cycles, an average lithium-ion battery can still perform well even after more than 1000 cycles.
What’s more, the useable capacity of lead batteries is also very limited since you can only use around 50% of their capacity without damaging the batteries, whereas, when it comes to a lithium-ion battery, you can use over 85% of its capacity. Thus, if you were to compare two battery banks of the same capacity, with lithium-ion you would get a 35% increase in usable capacity.
Charging time is very important for consumers, and this is another area where lithium-ion is once again the superior technology. Batteries that use this technology can charge within an hour, especially since fast charging has gotten better in the last few years. Lead-acid batteries don’t fare as well since it can take up to 10 hours for them to charge fully safely.
When it comes to performance in outdoor conditions, under very hot temperatures, lithium-ion batteries are truly maintenance-free. Due to their poor lifetime and resistance, lead-acid batteries need more frequent maintenance and replacement operations, which makes them a poor choice if your focus is to use them in hot outdoor conditions.
Still, lead-acid batteries have the upper hand in one area, namely in very cold temperatures. Lithium-ion technology doesn’t fare very well in cold weather, which is why lead-acid batteries are still the preferred choice for most gasoline car engines.
Another advantage of lead-acid batteries is that they come with a long history. It is a mature technology with a history of over 150 years. It is reliable and well-understood when used correctly and, while it may not provide the same performance as lithium-ion, many prefer it for its dependable service.
Batteries nowadays are much safer than they were in the past, but lithium-ion batteries sometimes make the headlines, and this has made many people believe that due to them being more powerful, lithium batteries are more dangerous than other batteries. So is there any truth to this statement?
To start this debate, it is worth mentioning that lithium-ion failures are very rare, and the fact that, when one does fail, it immediately makes the headlines is a good way of showing just how rare and unexpected such an event is.
Most of the failures in batteries occur due to short circuits that overheat the battery and ignite its components. The reason why a lead-acid battery can’t ignite is that its electrolyte is water, whereas a lithium-ion unit uses a flammable substance. Thus, lead-acid batteries are less likely to cause fire outbreaks.
To limit the chance of failure, lithium-ion batteries are equipped with safety components to protect them from short circuits and to keep the temperature and pressure of the battery under control.
Even though lead-acid batteries can’t explode in a ball of fire, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily safer. Spillage of the sulfuric acid that is contained inside the battery can still occur, and it can be just as dangerous as the explosion of a lithium-ion battery.
Thus, to summarize, both types of batteries are very safe, especially when compared to older models. While failures can still occur, they are very rare and nothing that you should worry about if you use the batteries under normal conditions.
One area where lead-acid batteries take the lead is in the cost department since all the benefits that lithium-ion offers come at a price. Lead-acid batteries have a simpler design, and since they are mainly composed of lead and lead compounds, old batteries can be recycled.
Lithium-ion uses a more complex technology, and lithium cells require more mechanical and electronic protection than lead. While it is true that the cost of lithium cells have fallen in the last few years, a lithium battery is still 2 to 5 times more expensive than a lead-acid one.
It’s not just the complex manufacturing process that’s to blame for this cost discrepancy, but also the fact that lithium-ion relies on much more expensive raw materials such as cobalt, which is a raw material that keeps going up in price.
For the time being, lead-acid batteries are far superior if you take into account the cost it takes to manufacture them. One important aspect to remember is that lithium-ion is a much younger industry, and it is expected that the cost gap will get smaller with each passing year.
When thinking about installing battery banks, practical considerations such as weight, shape, possibilities for customization, and size are critical. In this regard, lithium-ion batteries once again have the edge since they weigh only a third of an equivalent lead-acid counterpart, and they take up less space.
Thus, lithium-ion batteries are more versatile, can fit in more diverse environments, and are way easier to customize. They don’t need to be stored in an upright position and nor do they need a vented battery compartment, which adds a lot of versatility to the battery.
It is also much easier to assemble lithium-ion batteries in odd shapes, and this is a huge advantage if you need to pack as much power as possible in a small compartment. Thus, to summarize, if you’re looking for a backup power solution, then it is best to avoid the more cumbersome lead-acid batteries unless you have a specific reason to do so.
Both technologies are a big source of pollution, but lead-acid batteries have a bigger ecological footprint since they use a lot of raw materials while delivering mediocre results. These batteries also have a shorter life, which means that more batteries need to be manufactured to meet the demand.
Lead is the primary material for lead-acid batteries, and the lead processing industry requires a large amount of energy that comes from fossil fuels, and this produces a great deal of pollution as a result. Poor management of the raw materials can cause not only environmental pollution but also harm to human health.
With that said, lead-acid batteries have the advantage of being much easier to recycle, and this can help offset some of its disadvantages. In the United States alone, the reuse rate of lead in waste lead-acid batteries has exceeded 98.5%. For other types of batteries, lithium-ion included, the recycling rate is less than 20%.
Lithium-ion batteries are also a source of pollution, but the reason why they are considered by many as more acceptable is their superior performance. Still, the environmental problems of lithium-ion batteries should not be ignored. This technology requires the mining of lithium carbonate, aluminum, copper, and iron ore.
Lithium carbonate is just a small part of the battery cell by mass, and it is aluminum and copper that have the most significant environmental impact.
Lithium-ion is also a relatively new technology, and recycling the raw materials is not as efficient. The good news is that there are high hopes that, in the future, the lithium-ion recycling industry will rival the lead-acid branch since the cell materials have been shown to have a high ability for recyclability and recovery.