Batteries Infusing Semiconductors is the Future


Batteries are devices for electrical storage where chemical energy is transformed into electrical energy in electrochemical cells. Batteries are classified into nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, lithium-ion batteries, lithium-ion polymer batteries, sodium-ion batteries, and others. Increasing popularity of portable electronic gadgets coupled with the ever-increasing end-use electronic device manufacturers are the key factors augmenting the growth of the global batteries for the semi-conductor market. The main factors leading to the growth of this market are the increasing application of batteries in laptops, notebooks, mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, camcorders, wearable devices, and others. Moreover, rise in consumer income levels especially in developing countries is expected to further propel the growth of the global batteries for the semiconductor market during the forecast period. However, risk of fire and the high cost of electronic devices may affect the market growth in the near future. The global market for semiconductor batteries was valued at $8.5 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $12.8 billion by 2023 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% during the forecast period, according to BCC Research.

The Age of Graphene

In today’s rechargeable lithium cells, the carbon-based graphene sheets, of which the anode is made, can bind six carbon atoms to one lithium atom. This has been the standard anode material for years. A new approach is to tighten up that ratio with alternative materials. In addition, there are anomalies in the travel of the lithium ions along graphene sheets to the rest area between them. These two parameters are the primary limiting factor in capacity and charge rates. Experiments have replaced the graphene with silicon. Silicon can bind four carbon atoms to one lithium atom. While this may seem counterintuitive, it isn’t because silicon atoms are larger than carbon atoms. 

Designing EV Batteries and Impact of Semiconductor

Dynamic thermal and self-healing effects, in addition, batteries now must be included in the overall architecture of a vehicle because they add a number of challenges that can affect the operation the entire system. So bigger batteries are being built. They are higher-power, and the power electronics need to deal with that. They need to switch faster, because the faster you switch the less power you’re going to waste, and it’s all about efficiency. The challenge in designing the battery and the battery management systems was that the acceptable operating temperature range for a battery is very narrow, and operates in difficult conditions. So if one cell in the battery is off and overheats, it could start a chain reaction. With a conventional Li-ion battery platform, all critical performance characteristics—electrode materials, design, production, and packaging—are determined by chemistry. A change in one characteristic is inextricably linked with the others, and this narrows flexibility and limits performance improvement variables.

SiC first established itself at 1,200 volts, where it outcompetes silicon and GaN, and has moved down toward the 600 to 900 volt level to serve the EV market. GaN outcompetes silicon in the 200 to 900 volt level and is also establishing itself in the EV market. At these voltages, the technology can also be used in power electronics for solar power systems and industrial motor drives. Microcontrollers with integrated battery management are yet to be widely available; however, they would fill a design need for low cost battery powered consumer devices, especially for wireless and IOT applications where low power draw is key.

Semiconductor Companies Bidding on EV Batteries

GaN startups are Ottawa, Ontario-based GaN Systems and El Segundo, California-based Navitas Semiconductor, whose power switching components already have been identified in product “teardowns,” in which a device is dismantled to figure out who manufactures the parts. GaN startups include Ithaca, New York-based Odyssey Semiconductor and Israel’s VisIC Technologies, which are both developing high-voltage power switches and modules. El Segundo-based Efficient Power Conversion (EPC) and Goleta, California-based Transphorm, in which private equity firm KKR is an investor, are also notable GaN startups. Cree, the largest pure-play SiC company, announced last year that it would invest $1 billion to expand manufacturing capacity at its Durham, North Carolina headquarters, as well to build a new fabrication facility in upstate New York. Other smaller SiC companies include Virginia-based GeneSiC Semiconductor, New Jersey-based United Silicon Carbide and New Hampshire-based GT Advanced Technologies.

Battery Technologies Evolving & Raw Materials Demand

Given the evolving situation and new market dynamics, it comes as little surprise that international companies would like to limit cobalt use, although it is worth noting that according to one major producer, the lower prices of cobalt hydroxide in 2019 have heavily disincentivized, and thus reduced, artisanal activity so far.

Higher nickel, lower cobalt batteries such as the NMC 811 are widely considered the future, using three times less cobalt than the existing NMC 111. Despite expectations that the cobalt quantity per battery will fall, overall cobalt demand (from passenger vehicles) is expected grow, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. Carbonate remains the most heavily traded product, but with increased production and inquiries, hydroxide is gaining ground. Despite being widely anticipated by the market, some lithium hydroxide producers fear that the subsidy cuts could hinder demand, with murmurings that some projects have been postponed on the announcement. The demand for portable devices in the healthcare industry is increasing because they are powered by pulse power and batteries. Medical devices such as surgical saws, drills, and infusion pumps are powered by primary lithium batteries. Such batteries deliver long-term power solutions to high-end, sophisticated portable devices such as electrocardiograms (EKGs) and portable defibrillators. For instance, Tadiran Batteries developed a high-energy lithium battery, which has an extended battery life of more than three decades and makes portable devices more efficient. Similarly, vendors such as Saft provide a wide range of batteries with different outputs. Thus, the growing demand for portable medical equipment is expected to drive market growth during the forecast period.

Vital elements: Batteries and raw materials

Cathode Composition

The cathode and anode are essential components of any battery. Lithium ion batteries typical have a graphite anode, and a cathode containing lithium, alongside other metals. A battery’s properties can be altered by changing the composition of those additional metals. For example, NMC battery cathodes use lithium, nickel, manganese and cobait. The popular NMC batteries are shifting towards higher nickelcontent, improving battery capacity and vehicle range, albeit at the expense of stability. EV manufacturers have been increasing range by dialing up nickel content, from 33.3% in NMC 111 cathodes to 80% in NMC 811 cathodes, dramatically improving battery capacity.

Big technology and car companies are all too aware of the limitations of lithium-ion batteries. While chips and operating systems are becoming more efficient to save power we’re still only looking at a day or two of use on a smartphone before having to recharge.