Blog Post

Chemistry Matters

This article was updated on April 8, 2020.

Globally, energy storage creates value for consumers across markets.  Batteries remove the intermittency of any generation source – solar, wind, traditional generators, the grid – and create critical reserves for back-up power in emergencies. Batteries also create an opportunity to eliminate or reduce costs associated with grid-tied Time of Use (ToU) and Peak Demand utility charges on a daily basis. Batteries create energy security, in any application, on grid or off. But battery chemistry matters, and they are not all the same.  Lithium batteries made with cobalt (NMC & NCA) are fundamentally toxic, get hot, catch fire, explode, and are dangerous. By contrast, lithium batteries made with ferro phosphate (LFP) are non-toxic, do not get hot or erupt into flames and do not explode.

On Friday April 19, a serious explosion occurred at the McMicken energy storage facility in Surprise, Arizona. Owned and operated by the Arizona Public Service, the batteries in the McMicken facility stored energy generated from solar. Many details about the Arizona incident have not yet been reported to the public as the authorities, the utility, and the battery manufacturer are still investigating the explosion and endeavoring to determine its cause. After the explosion, the facility was immediately shut down. Grievously, several firefighters who were called in to respond to the explosion and ensuing fire were hospitalized with serious injuries.

Within days, Bloomberg News, which has steadily been covering the burgeoning energy storage market, appeared ready throw the whole battery industry under the bus. A report on the Arizona incident quoted Logan Goldie-Scot, a Bloomberg analyst, “If utilities and regulators deem energy storage unsafe, gigawatts of proposed storage deployments would be threatened.” This statement was made without any regard for battery chemistry and whether or not the lithium batteries used in the McMicken facility were cobalt-based – fundamentally toxic and hazardous – or that there is a choice amongst lithium ion battery chemistries for a solution that is non-toxic and safe – that there is an alternative to cobalt.

Notably, missing in this report, and in much of the reporting that covers the myriad fires caused by “lithium ion” batteries over the last several years, is a clear explanation of the range of different battery chemistries that represent a fundamental choice in the lithium energy storage market – a choice between non-toxic, safe chemistry (LFP) and those that pose an inherent risk due to toxicity and hazards (NMC & NCA). This matters, because these different chemistries have important implications for safety, toxicity and the phenomenon known as ‘thermal runaway’ – batteries overheating and spontaneously erupting into flames. All of these risks are a result of cobalt in the battery chemistry. Chemistry matters.

Lithium cobalt, the earliest chemistry, is used in the majority of lithium ion batteries in the market. Cobalt is toxic and hazardous. It poses a threat with serious risks, not only to end-users because the battery can overheat and propagate fires, but also to the wellbeing of people (very often children) and the environment along the entire cobalt supply chain. Cobalt may soon be added to the international list of Conflict Minerals because of the horrific human abuses that take place at cobalt mining operations, very often in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by warlords—corporate and tribal—profiting off the labors of children and adults who are not provided with the most basic protective gear, compensation, or living quarters.

As the CEO of a fast-growing company designing and manufacturing lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) energy storage systems that do not utilize cobalt—the likely cause of the fires, toxic hazards and explosions associated with “lithium ion” batteries—it is clear that there is a real need for education to enable consumers to make informed purchasing decisions that have a real impact on public safety – their safety.

The crucial but largely unreported factor in many of the fires and explosions happening in the industry today—from a MWh utility installation in Brussels to LG Chem ESS systems to Tesla cars — is battery chemistry. Most “lithium ion” batteries (lithium manganese cobalt oxide – NMC and lithium nickel cobalt aluminum – NCA) contain cobalt. Cobalt is toxic and hazardous. Lithium is not toxic or hazardous, but because reports on “lithium fires” do not distinguish the fundamental differences and hazards between available chemistry, ALL “lithium ion” batteries are getting a bad name, whether they use cobalt or not. This is a tremendous disservice to advancing the entire energy industry that increasingly looks to batteries to create power reserves to optimize the grid, to create access to power beyond the grid, to create critical back-up power in catastrophic failure of the grid.  In addition, it is time for the industry as a whole, particularly in the face of the disastrous cobalt-based lithium battery fires, to realize that ‘energy security’ and ‘clean energy’ (renewable solar & wind generation), cannot be achieved with fundamentally toxic and hazardous batteries that put the end user, and all those along the entire supply chain, at serious risk.

The key factor in the thermal runaway fires reported in phones, laptops, hoverboards, cars, airliners,  and even vape pens is not ‘lithium ion’ per se. It’s the cobalt that’s in the vast majority of “lithium” batteries. Cobalt dramatically increases the risk of uncontrolled or “thermal runaway” fires for three key reasons: Li batteries that use cobalt generate significant heat. This necessitates expensive cooling, fire retardant systems and thermal monitoring systems. These often shut a storage system down if the cobalt-based lithium ion batteries get too hot.

At the same time, cobalt lowers the temperature threshold, or “” thermal runaway point, at which the chemical compound breaks down and burns. When a battery reaches that point, cobalt-based lithium (Li) compounds in thermal runaway release oxygen. This fuels and “self-propagates” a highly toxic fire, making it dangerous for first responders and impossible to put it out until the oxygen in the compound burns out. This has prompted local, federal and international agencies to crack down on and recall thousands of Li batteries. New York City has initiated strict 9540a Li battery safety tests, required whether a lithium battery has cobalt in it or not. As of March 2020, we completed UL 9540A and the test results concluded that there were no signs of flames, ignition or fire propagation across cells during the entire test period, again confirming the inherent safety of the PHI LFP chemistry, cell construction, battery module design, manufacturing materials and processes.

Reports that declare ‘lithium-ion batteries have exploded’, can catch fire and are dangerous, without identifying the specific chemistry —or raw materials—that make these batteries likely to burn such as cobalt, inaccurately and egregiously tar an entire industry.

SimpliPhi Power has always chosen to only use the most environmentally benign and safe chemistry—lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) that does not contain cobalt. It’s true that I have a vested interest in clarifying this issue. But so should anyone concerned with both safety and sustainability. SimpliPhi Power specifically chose the LFP chemistry in 2010 when we founded the company precisely because of the issue of public safety and environmental impact. So why have other companies chosen and continue to choose cobalt-based lithium chemistry – even in the face of increasing fires? Cobalt is cheaper.

In addition, changing the chemistry of a mass produced cell, its cell packs, and its battery management system is costly. It should be noted, as the earliest innovation in lithium ion batteries, cobalt’s energy density was a vast improvement over lead acid and allowed cell phones, laptops and other consumer electronics to shrink in size. In the early days, it was thought that size alone – small lithium cobalt oxide batteries – would mitigate the risk of thermal runaway and fire. Of course, we see evidence today that size alone does not prevent fires or serious risk to end-users as cell phones and laptops continue to overheat and catch fire on planes, people’s couches and in their bags. So what happens when these cobalt-based lithium batteries scale up in size – those being installed in homes, businesses and utility infrastructure? The toxicity, hazards and risks scale-up too.

As a company, SimpliPhi was not willing to compromise on our customers safety simply to gain market share on price point alone, even though using the newer innovation in lithium ion chemistry – LFP – would not have the same competitive edge on price-point across markets that lithium cobalt-based batteries did. This forced us to innovate batteries, using the newer advances in lithium ion chemistry, with a focus on public safety, longevity, efficiency and overall performance, even in hot climates. We set out to create a superior and safer battery that would justify the higher price point.  When it came to the proposition of storing ‘clean’ energy, we knew it had to be done using the most environmentally benign and safe chemistry—lithium ferro phosphate. When it came to creating energy security, how could we tell customers to use an inherently hazardous and toxic chemistry that put them at risk? These were some of the fundamental questions and core values that informed our vision and mission as a company from its inception.

Since SimpliPhi Power’s innovative LFP-based batteries do not include cobalt,  they don’t generate significant heat, don’t shut down or burn out in the heat, don’t need bulky and expensive cooling systems to stay safe, don’t risk self-propagating and highly toxic fires and explosions. As a result, according to independent US military tests, they are far more safe, reliable, durable, flexible, efficient and cost efficient than any other battery system available. That’s why the US military used them in the Afghan mountains, and the World Bank and Clinton Climate Initiative have chosen SimpliPhi for projects in Africa and the Caribbean. It’s why Whole Foods uses them on California rooftops, the LA Dept of Power & Water uses them in the desert—all places where temperatures can top 120 degrees. Homes and businesses in 40+ countries use them. It’s why the FAA has given SimpliPhi “special permission” for air transport clearance globally for 4 years running.

Now we are working with UL and DNV-GL (NY Best) to subject our LFP cells and batteries to the most rigorous tests established to validate that our chemistry and batteries are safe. This independent, rigorous third-party test data will enable customers to make informed purchasing decisions when it comes to batteries at the residential, commercial and utility point of installation.

Recently, the Energy Storage Association has been presented with an opportunity to prioritize safety as an early commitment. I am hopeful that discernment between ‘lithium ion’ battery chemistries will become an important part of the discussion concerning public safety and reliable storage solutions. Batteries provide access to power for those who live beyond the limits of the grid, critical backup power for those who are tied to the grid, the ability to strengthen our aging grid infrastructure, as well as the means to store the ever-increasing amount of energy generated from renewable sources. We need these systems to be safe and reliable.

We live in a time of climate change. On an ever-warming planet, the seas are rising, storms are increasingly severe, fires rage, and climate refugees face growing income inequality. It is critical that evolving battery technology is not hazardous because of its fundamental toxicity. Risks to end-users must be minimized if we are to harness renewable energy, create equal access, social and economic parity and a route toward decarbonization. Increased safety, continued innovation using environmentally benign, rare earth elements, and critical public education is essential to spur and energize our industry’s wider adoption. The planet depends on it. So do the people who inhabit it.