The Pitfalls of
Buying Lithium Batteries
Please read before you
commit to a purchase.
Lithium is a rare earth metal that is only found in a few countries
in the world. The largest concentration
is in Bolivia. However, years ago the
President of Bolivia made an agreement with the President of Iran, not a
friendly country to most of the free non-Muslim world, to sell all of Bolivia’s
lithium to Iran. The next biggest
commercial deposits come from China.
Thus, if you want to purchase anything with lithium in it you will
probably have to deal with the Chinese.
That is not necessarily a bad thing.
I have discovered that there are many good Chinese capitalistic
companies that are anxious to sell their products in the free world. However there are some lithium companies in
China that are owned by the Chinese Government and have been formed for two
purposes: To make money and to give people work. People who work for these Government entities
are like civil servants. They know that
it is difficult to fire them so, in my opinion; it is human nature that they
will not pay as close attention to things as a company whose existence depends
on keeping the customers happy.
Experience: About 10 years ago I
read an article written by a man from the USA who was in China on a business
trip that was unrelated to batteries. He had been contemplating buying a
lithium pack and had been corresponding to several candidates that proposed to
sell him the batteries that he needed. Since he had some spare time he decided
to visit some of these factories who had sent him glossy descriptions of their
abilities to supply him their batteries. What he discovered on these visits was
shocking. He said that some companies were manufacturing batteries in small
facilities no bigger than garages while squatting on the floor with only basic
tools. There was no quality control
testing. Fortunately most of the
industry has made great progress since those early days.
When I went into the lithium battery business in 2008, and in
spite of this advance warning, I felt that I could determine who was a
legitimate supplier and who were fraudulent or made poor quality cells. It turned out that even with my best efforts
to evaluate the Chinese lithium battery suppliers I still had some experiences
that cost our company a loss in reputation and a large amount of money. Finally I decided that the only way I could
really evaluate some of the companies that made us some good offers was to go
to China and do plant surveys. It was an
eye opening experience. As a result I
now routinely go to China to try to stay abreast of the latest technology and
most advanced manufacturing techniques.
I try to visit up to 5 factories on each trip. These China trips have paid off because we
now know about many companies that might have caused us pain. There are literally hundreds of companies who
make lithium batteries. Eventually the
market cannot support them all and there will be a winnowing out of their ranks
and only the efficient will succeed. As
they struggle and in their desperate effort to survive they are tempted to
lower the purity of the chemicals in their cells and take other shortcuts in an
effort to lower prices and stay competitive.
Batteries: There are a number of
different chemistries available in a lithium battery. These chemistries were created to address
specific needs for a particular application.
There is lithium cobalt, which happens to have a high energy density but
can be unstable and might spontaneously combust into flames under certain
conditions. The lithium manganese
chemistry is more stable but not completely out of the woods as far as
spontaneous combustion. In most countries
including the United States both of these chemistries are considered to be
hazardous materials and by International Law have to be shipped and disposed of
in a proscribed fashion. Lithium Iron
Phosphate is considered to be non-hazardous and is very stable. Because of its stability the LiFePO4, (lithium
Iron Phosphate) chemistry is the one most people including myself prefer.
Quality: Lithium is a precious and rare metal which is
difficult to refine. There are many
different grades of refined lithium available to the battery manufacturer. Often, in order to become more competitive and
lower costs, the manufacturer will buy a lesser purity lithium in order to be
more competitive. Raw Low grade
lithium can be as much as 220% lower in cost than high grade refined lithium. Naturally the finished battery quality will
be reflected in the purity of the lithium that is the most active
component. A lower quality lithium
battery will not perform as well and will heat up more than the higher purity
cell resulting in a shorter battery life.
The internals of a Prismatic lithium battery contain a large
number of plates which are stacked one on top of another. Larger prismatic battery sizes often
encounter a problem that is often overlooked by the buyer because of the
convenience of interconnecting the cells and the fact that they normally cost
less than packs made up of pouch cells or a large quantity of cylindrical cells
stacked together. The difficulty lies
in the fact that the innermost plates in a prismatic battery have a difficult
time dissipating the heat that is generated when the cell is operating under a
heavy load. Very often this problem can
be averted by using a large quantity of smaller thin pouch cells that have no
insulating case around each cell. These
thin un-insulated pouch cells and cylindrical cells in a pack exhibit a characteristic
of being able to dissipate the heat much faster. Thus the cylindrical cells and the pouch
cells usually have a higher C rating than prismatic batteries. Pouch and cylindrical packs have a great deal
of flexibility to meet physical dimensions and are usually a little lighter in
weight than the equivalent prismatic cell.
The factories will generally assemble these packs to their customer’s
electrical and physical parameters for no extra charge.
Financial Exposure: Whenever a person sends money into a foreign
country to purchase a product made in that country they become exposed to all
sorts of difficulties that have nothing to do with the end product itself. Things like language barriers, foreign
standards, dealing with foreign freight companies, and a myriad of other things
can make the transaction have a less than satisfactory outcome. This especially applies to purchasing
expensive lithium batteries or battery packs.
Resolving some of these often unexpected issues can be financially painful
and can delay the transaction.
Price: The cost of a lithium battery is usually the
primary consideration for many buyers.
This factor is often a trap that the unwary fall into because they do
not know that the first cost is often not the total cost. Shipping transportation costs are often left
off the bid price and left to the buyer to figure out. The simple fact is this. You will probably get what you pay for. Since lithium costs are so high the battery
longevity must be taken into consideration.
This is not easy to determine without an experienced track record for
Delivery: From experience I have concluded
that lying is a perfected art form and a way of survival in China. Except for pricing most Chinese will
tell you what you want to hear …. Which is often far from the facts. Over the years our company has developed
contacts with individuals in China who have high ethical standards and will not
lie to us.
Shipping: Getting the batteries from the factory to your doorstep can be a
vexing problem. Air Freight is the
fastest and easiest but also the most expensive. Traditionally we figure the air shipping
costs will be about $3.50 to $4.00 a pound for batteries shipped into a North
American International airport on most small shipments of up to 500 pounds. Air
shipments by FedEx, UPS or DHL usually occur with a minimum of difficulty. Air transit time is generally less than five
days. On all shipments into North
America our company typically will bid our batteries delivered to your doorstep
so that the customer does not have to deal with any shipping costs or other
Conversely ocean shipping is much cheaper but many times more
complicated. Shipping in 20’ or 40’
containers may be simple by comparison.
Smaller shipments almost become a nuisance to shipping companies that
will transfer over 500 container loads in one boat load. Getting the shipments from the factory dock
to the shipping dock and then safely stowed onboard the ship can be froth with
problems. Dock worker openly accept
bribes. Ocean transit time is generally
ten to twelve days. Getting the cargo
off the ship and through United States Customs is problematic. Every document has to be letter perfect and
exactly match the label on the boxes. This
is often difficult to do with a Chinese shipping clerk who does not read,
understand or write English. There are
seven hurdles that need to be cleared in the process of getting the products to
the customer’s doorstep when shipping by boat.
Ocean shipping traditionally will take about 4 to 6 weeks from the time
the products leave the factory’s dock.
Labeling and Paperwork:
All too often a well-meaning Chinese person who does not understand
English will label the box, packing slip or commercial invoice incorrectly
leaving the shipment languishing in a warehouse and gathering storage charges
while the miscommunication paperwork is worked out. At times the person who sorts the different
shipments that came in on the same boat will misdirect a package to the wrong
customer causing confusion, delays and additional shipping costs.
Warranty: Again, The Chinese companies will
tell you what you want to hear. Usually
the warranty period is two years on LiFePO4 batteries. Some of these warrantees
are similar to a lead acid battery which is prorated. If the battery fails the factory will only
give you back a portion of your money. My
experience is that most Chinese companies do not send money back easily. They will not just accept the customer’s word
that his battery failed or is weak. Before
they pay off they insist that electrical measurements be taken of the battery
and/or pictures to prove that the battery failed. Even then getting a refund is like pulling
teeth. Many manufacturers will insist
that an accepted BMS system be installed on the battery and proof must be shown
that you have not overcharged and over-discharged the batteries. Our company only deals with Chinese
manufacturers who give a full replacement on any battery that fails
within the two year period. I have
heard some real horror stories about some Chinese factories, which we do not
sell, giving their customers a terrible run around until the customer eventually
gives up and finally drops the whole matter and never collects the refund
amount that they rightfully deserve.
The Electric Car Company does its
level best to help our customers avoid all of these pitfalls!