Sony was once the leader in the lithium-ion "Li-ion" battery market. In 1991, it was the first in the world to commercialize them. It has focused mainly on compact batteries for PCs and mobile phones. The lithium-ion battery market continues to expand, driven by strong demand for mobile phones, PCs and now electric vehicles. For example, such batteries are seen in an increasing minority of pure electric forklift trucks and boats, in most off-road electric vehicles and in virtually all Autonomous Underwater Vehicles AUVs, electric aircraft and electric airships, not just in on-road electric vehicles from buses to trucks, cars and some e-bikes. Valence Technology is one of the most imaginative marketers of these, having created a new market for them in the hybridisation of ocean going yachts and selling them into many forms of land vehicle.
Sony is noticeably absent from all this vehicle activity, despite Sony CEO Howard Stringer announced plans, in 2009, to enter the automotive battery business.
It is now possible to dig deeper. The new computer analysis of 40,000 patents in advanced energy storage, "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning" (IDTechEx/PatAnalyse 2011) reveals a weak position in respect of Sony intellectual property relevant to Li-ion in the automotive sector.
It shows that Sony is one of the strongest patentors of lithium-ion battery technology in general, behind only Panasonic, Samsung and LG Chem. For example, it is patenting a wide range of both cathode and anode chemistries at a steady rate - mainly improvements, not the radically different options for the future such as lithium sulphur being developed by Oxis Energy or lithium air. However, it is not increasing its patenting in lithium-ion battery technology in general, unlike several other leaders, including Toyota coming up to overtake it, partly thanks to a broader range of research.
More seriously, from an automotive point of view, Sony is not even in the top 50 patentors of lithium- ion traction battery technology as opposed to lithium-ion in general, or the associated supercapacitors where OptiXtal and Nanotecture are leading the development, on-board charging systems or battery management systems led by Lithium Balance and others analysed in the patent maps of this new report.
By contrast, several of its battery competitors are actively patenting in most or all of these fields as they major on the needs of electric vehicles. After all, the market for traction batteries will be worth more than the market for all other forms of rechargeable battery. For example, we all know someone that has had their laptop battery die after only 18 months and, as that problem is dealt with, the laptop market growth will ease greatly. Meanwhile, on the forecasts of analysts IDTechEx, 9.9 million electric cars will be sold in 2021, each with Li-ion batteries equivalent to thousands of Li-ion batteries in consumer goods.
Other analysts rarely foresee anything less because the trend in sales of electric cars, hybrid and pure electric, and of the number of new models available, new grants kicking in and other factors make the figures increasingly plausible.
In 2010, Sony announced that it was spending $1.5 billion to set up a high volume production system for high capacity batteries. If this is true, then it is investing at the level of the leaders in traction batteries. However, it has yet to announce a mainstream traction battery though it has recently expressed interest in the much smaller business of storage batteries for fast charging systems.
One exceptional feature of the new Sony olivine lithium iron phosphate OLFP battery is its long life in addition to the usual LFP benefits of excellent temperature stability and freedom from the price hikes of cobalt. It can last for more than 10 years if fully charged and discharged once a day in an environment with a temperature of 23 C. What enabled this achievement is a marked improvement in the quality of a key raw material used in electrodes.
Electrode materials are one of the most frequently used core materials for lithium-ion batteries, so they wear out faster than other battery materials and make a huge difference in longevity. Sony studied various materials that could increase the durability of electrode materials and came up with olivine lithium iron phosphate because its crystals bind together better than those made of nickel -- a common electrode material -- and wear out more slowly even with repeated charges, 2000 cycles being claimed. Battery modules using this technology are said to be capable of 1.8 kW/kg which is four times the energy density of previous chemistry.
As hybrids become more like pure electric vehicles as they more closely meet the consumer requirement of longer all-electric range, energy density is paramount.
Another sales point of the IJ1001M version of the Sony OLFP is its ultrafast charging. It can be 90% charged in just one hour, which is 5-10 times faster than possible with lithium-ion batteries using lead for their electronics. That is because the solid crystal structure of olivine lithium iron phosphate allows electricity to flow more smoothly. There has been mention of 30 minute fast charging in future.
"With the battery's high-speed charging capability, we also hope to tap demand from charging stations for electric vehicles," said an official at Sony Energy Devices Corp.
Launched in April 2011, the IJ1001M is currently expensive at about $3,700 per kilowatt per hour, ruling it out for mainstream traction in vehicles but possibly making it useful in the ultrafast chargers themselves, not least in private homes. Module capacity is 1.2 kWh which can be expanded to up to about 1 megawatt hour by combining modules. E-bikes need under one kWh but the most powerful AUVs need 400 kWh. Sony hopes to tap demand from data centers and base stations for mobile phones.
"The price may seem a bit high, but it is actually a good deal, given that the battery module requires less maintenance due to its long life," said a Sony Energy Devices official.
Toshiba, in the top ten Li-ion patentors, and Panasonic, the leader in Li-ion IP, also intend to mass-produce their own home-use storage batteries, both already having a Li-ion market position in vehicle traction batteries, from e-bikes to cars.
For more read the IDTechEx report, Electric Vehicle Traction Batteries 2010-2020.
The latest on supercapacitors, lithium-ion and lead acid batteries in use in all forms of electric vehicles is intensively covered at the forthcoming Electric Vehicles Land Sea Air" in Stuttgart Germany June 28-29.
.There are even presentations by the leader developing supercabatteries, otherwise known as asymmetric electrochemical double layer capacitors which combine the features of lithium-ion and supercapacitors and a by large number of manufacturers of land water and air vehicles that variously employ lead acid and lithium-ion batteries and various forms of fuel cell for traction power. The emphasis is on what comes next and the scope of the event is global.