Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ternary cathode materials: a market full of promise in China

Cathode materials, a key component of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that power our digital devices and, increasingly, our hybrid and electric cars, are already produced in large quantities in China. Cathode materials made in China can be found in devices made by Samsung, LG, Sony, and many other brands. However, according to China market intelligence firm CCM, the market is about to undergo major changes in the coming years, as newly-developed ternary cathode materials increasingly replace their mainstream rivals.

Current state of the cathode materials market in China

In China, both mainstream cathode materials such as lithium cobaltate (LiCoO2), lithium manganate (LiMn2O4) and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), and the newly-developing ternary cathode material, lithium nickel manganese cobaltate (Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2), have achieved marketization.

LiCoO2: Currently, the market is dominated by LiCoO2, which accounted for more than 50% of the 48,000 tonnes of Li-ion battery cathode materials produced in China in 2013. LiCoO2 is the preferred cathode material for small-scale, high-energy-density Li-ion batteries used in high-end electronic products both in China and worldwide. In recent years, Chinese-manufactured LiCoO2 has been largely exported to South Korea-based Samsung Group, South Korea-based LG Group (LG), Japan-based Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd. and Japan-based Sony Corporation, and a stable supply chain has taken shape.

However, LiCoO2 has two big disadvantages – high production costs due to scarce Co resources, and a high level of toxicity, which can cause harmful environmental pollution. For these reasons, downstream enterprises are demanding suitable substitutes for LiCoO2, and it appears that LiCoO2 is already in decline.

LiMn2O4: LiMn2O4 is a more eco-friendly cathode material with key advantages, such as low price, high electric potential and high safety levels. At present, LiMn2O4 is mainly applied in medium- and low-end electronic products. Overseas, especially in Japan and South Korea, LiMn2O4 is mainly used in power Li-ion batteries. The first Li-ion battery based on LiMn2O4 was launched in the early 1990s by Sony Corporation.

Nevertheless, LiMn2O4-based batteries tend to have poor circulation performance and their electrochemical performance degrades quickly. Manganese dissolution is also a problem when batteries are operating at temperatures of 55℃ or above, making them unsuitable for many applications.

LiFePO4: As China’s alternative energy vehicle industry has developed, the domestic power Li-ion battery industry has increasingly been focusing its R&D efforts on developing LiFePO4 as a cathode material. In this, China is clearly following the US’ lead, where Valence Technology Inc. and A123 Systems, LLC have already adopted LiFePO4 in power Li-ion batteries, but China is yet to produce LiMn2O4 with fine circulation and storage performance at high temperature suitable for application in a power Li-ion battery.

Moreover, although LiFePO4 is outstanding in its thermal stability, circulation performance and security, it still has shortcomings of low specific volumetric capacity and weak electrical conductivity.

Where the market is heading: Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2 a promising solution

Clearly, each of the mainstream cathode materials has its strengths and weaknesses. In recent years, both domestic and overseas researchers for Li-ion battery cathode materials have been making efforts to improve the performances of these three materials by optimizing various technologies. Also, they are searching for new cathode materials combining high security and high energy density with low costs.

Ternary cathode materials, such as Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2, have been widely recognized as one of the most promising and potentially valuable cathode materials. According to CCM’s research, in order to conform to the general industrial trend of developing ternary cathode materials, China has done a great deal of research in synthetic technology, lattice doping, surface coating and electrolyte modification with the aim of steadily advancing towards the industrialization of ternary cathode materials.

Industry insiders have informed CCM that although the market shares of ternary cathode materials are currently limited, the low production cost and high energy density of these new materials are so outstanding compared to other commercial cathode materials that their market shares are certain to increase.

In particular, in the field of power Li-ion batteries, the cathode materials targeted at LiMn2O4 and LiFePO4 will transit into hybrid materials of LiMn2O4/Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2 and LiFePO4/Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2 in the coming years. Finally, when ternary cathode material preparation has matured and the relevant patent applications have been processed, ternary cathode materials are expected to become the mainstream cathode materials for power Li-ion batteries.

Meanwhile, China’s National Standardization Technical Committee of Nonferrous Metals has begun the process of producing a set of related industry standards for Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2. The Standards for Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2 and the Method for Chemical Analysis of Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2 are expected to be issued in the near future. This will also help to further the development of China’s Li(Ni,Co,Mn)O2.

-          This article was provided by CCM, a leading provider of data and business intelligence on China’s chemicals market. CCM has launched China Li-ion Battery E-News, a new e-journal dedicated to analyzing all the latest news and trends in China’s Li-ion battery industry. For more information on CCM and China Li-ion Battery E-News, please visit or contact

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