Study reveals plunge in lithium-ion battery costs
Credit: MIT

The cost of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used for phones, laptops, and cars has fallen dramatically over the last three decades, and has been a major driver of the rapid growth of those technologies.

But attempting to quantify that cost decline has produced ambiguous and conflicting results that have hampered attempts to project the technology’s future or devise useful policies and research priorities.

Now, MIT researchers have carried out an exhaustive analysis of the studies that have looked at the decline in the prices these batteries, which are the dominant rechargeable technology in today’s world. The new study looks back over three decades, including analyzing the original underlying datasets and documents whenever possible, to arrive at a clear picture of the technology’s trajectory.

The researchers found that the cost of these batteries has dropped by 97 percent since they were first commercially introduced in 1991.

This rate of improvement is much faster than many analysts had claimed and is comparable to that of solar photovoltaic panels, which some had considered to be an exceptional case. The new findings are reported today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Micah Ziegler and Associate Professor Jessika Trancik.

While it’s clear that there have been dramatic cost declines in some clean-energy technologies such as solar and wind, Trancik says, when they started to look into the decline in prices for lithium-ion batteries, “we saw that there was substantial disagreement as to how quickly the costs of these technologies had come down.” Similar disagreements showed up in tracing other important aspects of battery development, such as the ever-improving energy density (energy stored within a given volume) and specific energy (energy stored within a given mass).

“These trends are so consequential for getting us to where we are right now, and also for thinking about what could happen in the future,” says Trancik, who is an associate professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

While it was common knowledge that the decline in battery costs was an enabler of the recent growth in sales of electric vehicles, for example, it was unclear just how great that decline had been.

Through this detailed analysis, she says, “we were able to confirm that yes, lithium-ion battery technologies have improved in terms of their costs, at rates that are comparable to solar energy technology, and specifically photovoltaic modules, which are often held up as kind of the gold standard in clean energy innovation.”


The study was published in Massachusetts Institute of Technology