There’s no shortage of interest in electric car battery startups or multibillion-dollar investments in the field as investors, corporations, and scientists strive to find the winning strategy. But with sodium-ion batteries, China has already moved on to the next stage of the race, one that does not require a huge, spectacular breakthrough. If implemented correctly, this technology has the potential to lead to broad adoption in a market that is heavily subsidized and where sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are still a small percentage of total vehicle sales.
The world’s largest battery manufacturer, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., or CATL, presented its newest product in July: a sodium-ion battery. Next month, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced it would drive the development, standardization, and commercialization of this type of power-pack, providing a less expensive, faster charging and safe alternative to the current crop of products available, which continue to be plagued by a number of issues, not least of which is faulty units catching fire.
Sodium-ion batteries have existed for quite some time. They were studied in the 1970s, but the lithium-ion battery rapidly surpassed them in popularity. As a result of their extensive use, sodium-based batteries failed to find many buyers, and any further development was shelved.
After decades of use, the drawbacks of lithium-ion batteries are beginning to be recognized. Manufacturers of automobiles and battery packs are working to reduce prices, which is a never-ending challenge. In spite of the fact that lithium-ion batteries have been a game-changer in the field of energy storage, they are increasingly confronted with problems such as rising costs, a lack of readily available materials, and concerns about safety. Stable chemistry and unpredictable chemistry are at odds all the time so that the battery doesn’t catch fire, and because of the increased energy density. Scientists have been baffled by the lack of clear answers, and what is available isn’t good enough to make lithium-ion scalable and financially feasible for electric vehicles.
It’s unlikely that sodium-based batteries will get electric cars any further than lithium-based ones do right now. At the very least, not in the near future. However, the resources required to produce them are readily available. According to Jefferies Group LLC analysts, sodium is 300 times more abundant than lithium in earth’s reserves at a concentration of 2.5% to 3%. That implies it has a significant cost advantage: these power packs might be 30 to 50 percent less expensive than the most affordable electric car battery options now available. With this fact in mind, the price of sodium is less susceptible to market swings than the price of lithium, and as a result, it has become a leading indicator for global green goals.
Although sodium-ion batteries currently have a lower energy density, they perform better at colder temperatures and have a longer lifespan, making them a superior long-term investment in the concept. The newest CATL product is projected to have an energy density of 160 Watt-hours per kilogram and a charge time of 15 minutes to reach 80%. This is comparable to current market-available batteries, which range from 140 Wh/kg to 180 and 240 Wh/kg in the most powerful variety (that have proven to be combustible at times).
There will be a new supply chain needed for sodium-ion batteries, as they can’t rely on the already popular lithium-ion batteries. Low material prices, on the other hand, imply that manufacturing costs will be lowered, and that refining current production methods to update these older batteries will be faster. A supply chain will be in place for CATL by 2023, according to the company. Companies like HiNa Battery Technology Co. have already started working on their own concepts.
In the end, the potential to put cheaper and safer alternatives on the market also implies wider accessibility for consumers or resource-constrained nations. Many developing countries, like India and South Africa, are eager to become electric car pioneers with far-reaching and ambitious goals to meet global environmental goals. However, neither the financial nor raw material resources are available to them. The sodium-ion battery, for example, offers a clear path to going electric and achieving their climate change objectives.
Whoever is able to master the next-best battery will be victorious.