Significance: The progress in battery technology has shown promising research outcomes but has not resulted in widespread commercial products for empowering digital devices, electric vehicles, or off-grid homes. Sodium-ion batteries present a solution due to their enhanced safety, durability, and more cost-effective production compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Lithium-ion batteries have been leading the way in modern energy storage and are driving global electrification efforts. However, the challenge of manufacturing them at the necessary scale to meet increasing demand appears almost insurmountable. In recent years, producers have cautioned about a potential lithium shortage, possibly by 2025.
A key contributing factor is the swift transformation of lithium from a niche metal used in the ceramic and pharmaceutical industries to one of the most coveted metals. Albemarle, one of the world’s largest lithium mining companies, and a leader in the US lithium resurgence, intends to raise its production capacity to 500,000 tonnes annually by 2030, yet acknowledges that it falls short of forecasted demand.
This is where sodium-ion batteries come into play. Though not as widely recognized as lithium-ion batteries, they represent a significant technological breakthrough that could fulfill the vision of electrification. The design of sodium-ion batteries is similar to that of lithium-ion batteries and can be manufactured using identical or closely resembling industrial processes. In this battery type, sodium ions substitute lithium ions in the cathode, and lithium salts in the electrolyte are replaced with sodium salts.
Sodium-ion batteries are not a novel concept, but the idea of large-scale production has gained traction only in recent years. Sodium is considerably more abundant than lithium, making it cheaper and more accessible, while being less susceptible to geopolitical tensions. At present, sodium carbonate is priced at $286 per metric ton, whereas battery-grade lithium carbonate costs $20,494 per metric ton.
Chemists have also discovered that cells incorporating layer-oxide cathodes using sodium do not necessitate expensive metals like cobalt or nickel to achieve energy density compared to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells, which are widely used in more affordable electric vehicles. ,
Earlier this month, a group of Japanese researchers at Tokyo University of Science disclosed their development of a high-capacity cathode for sodium-ion batteries using nanostructured hard carbon. The resulting cells can achieve an energy density of up to 312 Wh per kilogram – nearly double that of lithium iron phosphate batteries. To provide some context, this is 1.6 times the energy density attained by the most advanced sodium-ion batteries a decade ago.
Another advantage of sodium-ion batteries is their capability to withstand a broad range of operating temperatures – from -30°C to 60°C (-22°F to 140°F) or even up to 80°C, depending on the chemistry employed. This is why companies like Faradion have already initiated trials of sodium-ion battery installations for stationary energy storage in Australia.
Earlier this year, a collaboration between Volkswagen and JAC Group unveiled the first electric sedan powered by sodium-ion batteries. The vehicle is equipped with a 25 kWh battery, offering a relatively moderate range of up to 250 km (155 mi). Both companies claim faster charging speeds, superior performance in low temperatures, and a longer operational cycle as the battery depletes slowly over time.
James Quinn, the CEO of Faradion, emphasizes the safety advantages of sodium-ion batteries. Unlike lithium-ion cells that need to be charged above 30 percent before transport, sodium-ion cells can be discharged safely to 0V like a capacitor, eliminating the risk of thermal runaway due to a short-circuit. He concludes that even puncturing a sodium-ion cell at full charge does not turn it into an incendiary projectile, as depicted in the above video.
While Faradion focuses primarily on stationary energy storage at present, other companies like Natron Energy have already made inroads into the automotive industry. The Santa Clara-based startup employs a readily available material called Prussian Blue to produce electrodes for its sodium-ion batteries, rated for approximately 50,000 to 100,000 charge/discharge cycles. They can also be fully recharged in 15 minutes or less.
Natron recently formed a partnership with Clarios International to mass-produce sodium-ion batteries at the company’s Meadowbrook facility in Michigan, utilizing the same equipment currently used for producing lithium-ion cells. This initiative aims to develop the world’s largest sodium-ion battery factory as production scales up in the coming months, according to Natron.
The future of sodium-ion batteries remains uncertain, but unlike many solutions that are yet to materialize outside of the laboratory, they hold significant promise. The outcome depends on how material prices fluctuate as the technology matures and more factories commence mass-producing sodium-ion cells.
It is projected that global production capacity will reach 186 GWh annually by 2030, as opposed to 6.5 TWh for lithium-ion cells. This indicates that sodium batteries are unlikely to supplant the dominance of lithium-ion in the near future. Nevertheless, they appear to be an increasingly viable option for a range of applications and are likely to become the preferred solution in the long run.