Sodium over lithium: The low-cost alternative to Li-ion batteries

CATL has presented a sodium-ion cell along with plans to start production in 2023. What are the advantages and disadvantages of replacing lithium? Christoph M. Schwarzer evaluated the technology by speaking to battery experts from P3 Automotive and Prof. Dr Markus Hölzle from ZSW. The potential is huge!

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Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL) has made a “breakthrough” with the establishment of basic production for sodium-ion cells, according to its own reading. And indeed, the replacement of the alkali metal lithium by the next element of this main chemical group would be the opportunity for further clear cost reduction. Therefore, our contributor talked to the battery professionals of P3 Automotive and Prof. Dr Markus Hölzle of ZSW (Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg) to come to a realistic assessment of sodium-ion cells.

CATL itself gets specific in the presentation: the Chinese company shows the actual cell and a battery system. It mixes lithium and sodium-ion cells to compensate for first-generation weaknesses. For example, CATL claims a comparatively low gravimetric energy density of 160 Wh/kg. The next generation is expected to exceed 200 Wh/kg; CATL has yet to say when.

Hard carbon anode

“The CATL developers must have succeeded in solving the known problems of sodium-ion cells, which are not new in principle,” explains Markus Hölzle. Hölzle, who holds a doctorate in electrochemistry and worked for BASF for a long time and internationally before joining ZSW, continues: “For example, 20 per cent of the capacity has so far been lost during the very first charge,” says Hölzle. CATL has probably been able to significantly improve the amorphous carbon on the anode side, the so-called hard carbon, in terms of irreversible losses and fast-charging capability. It can therefore be assumed that materials research has been a success here.

“On the cathode side, Prussian blue, a non-toxic dye, is used in a state completely mixed with sodium ions,” Professor Hölzle explains further. The advantage: “Low-cost raw materials are used throughout.” Not only lithium but also the typical cathode metals such as nickel and cobalt are eliminated. Despite the disadvantages, such as low energy density, Hölzle can imagine sodium-ion cells in all classes of vehicles because the auto industry is always paying close attention to the trade-off between costs and benefits. But even more interesting and closer in time would be stationary applications such as battery storage for solar systems because energy density plays only a minor role in these applications. With low-cost sodium-ion batteries, large battery storage systems could be realized at acceptable prices.

His conclusion: “I suspect that CATL will actually go into series production. The company is by far the market leader in China and has the clear goal of becoming the global champion in batteries. To this end, several hundred scientists are working in the group’s own research department at its headquarters in Ningde, China. Given CATL’s size and reputation, it is unlikely that it is exaggerating here,” says Markus Hölzle.

Competition from low-cost LFP cells

The consulting firm P3, which truly benchmarks every cell available, broadly confirms the view of ZSW. P3 cites three advantages of sodium versus lithium-ion cells: They are more powerful in terms of charge and discharge performance and thus offer advantages for applications with high power requirements, such as onboard batteries, small vehicles and stationary storage for power grids with high power requirements, among others. However, they are not yet a good enough fit for electric cars, according to P3. They have top-notch low-temperature performance. And their lifetime and thermal stability, i.e. safety, is very high. “But because the energy density is not comparable to current lithium-ion batteries with NCM cathode, the core competitive technology is LFP,” the consultancy concludes.

This needs a brief explanation: With few exceptions, lithium-ion cells with a cathode of nickel, cobalt and manganese were and are used in battery-electric cars. Although the mixing ratio at the cathode has changed permanently, the basic structure is similar. Tesla has been selling the Model 3 SR+ with a lithium iron phosphate battery for just under a year. This cell chemistry is extremely robust, allows tight packaging in the system and has very high cycle stability.

Because cobalt and nickel can be dispensed with, the price drops. On the other hand, there are disadvantages such as a shorter range due to the lower energy density – which is why the Model 3 is Standard Range Plus and not Long Range – and poor performance in cold conditions. Nevertheless, Tesla is rumoured to be deploying the second generation of LFP cells as early as the end of the year. The winter will show what improvements have been made.

No industrial-scale application so far

Back to P3’s assessment of sodium-ion batteries: the degree of maturity so far is low, he said, because a sober look reveals that there is no application on a large industrial scale. “Quite a few startups from Faradion in the UK, Altris in Sweden or Tiamat in France are trying to commercialize this technology,” P3 said. None has succeeded yet.

If successful, the cost advantage could be ten to 20 per cent compared to LFP: “The significantly higher availability of sodium as well as its simpler and more environmentally friendly extraction and the elimination of cobalt and nickel in the cathode material can lead to a significant reduction in cell costs.” P3 believes that an application in motor vehicles is also possible, but for the time being the trend is toward stationary storage.

Utilising existing production processes

The reality of use in a mass-produced electric car could nevertheless come sooner than that of solid-state batteries: “It is estimated that the corresponding level of maturity for large-scale industrialization will be reached more quickly than, for example, by All Solid State, because due to the drop-in technology (same production technologies and similar material combinations as for lithium-ion batteries) the scalability can be classified as relatively high.

Neither ZSW nor P3 are currently committing to a price. Optimists, however, assume a cost of $30 per kilowatt-hour. CATL is very likely to produce sodium-ion cells in the period from or after 2023. At the same time, more electric cars with LFP cells will be coming to market in Germany. Volkswagen, for example, has already specified this for its entry-level ID.1 and ID.2 models. So, because of their better performance and even lower cost, while being more environmentally friendly, sodium-ion cells could become a competitor to LFP in the second half of the decade. As always with batteries, there is no cause for euphoria. But there is reason to be confident: at the moment, cost reduction is the most important aspect of electromobility’s global ramp-up.

Reporting by Christoph M. Schwarzer, Germany. Edit & translation by Nora Manthey, UK.


about „Sodium over lithium: The low-cost alternative to Li-ion batteries“
Paul Villella
28.08.2021 um 18:35
It amazes me to think "experts" can visualize private ownership of BEVs with 75Kwh of storage, but when talking about stationary storage they almost always look to the dying idea of a huge expansive grid overlord system. The Chinese would do well to throw the western world "top down" system proponents under the bus and appeal to the individualists that see the new system as a highly independent, peer to peer economy/current(cy). If grids providers don't become purvayors of new systems integrated from ground-up connectivity, they will go the way of mainframes as PCs and the internet took over
30.06.2022 um 15:24
This is very much happening. China has invested heavily in rural communities to have spot-power to save from the very costly process of running gas and electric over difficult terrain. It has improved and modernized people's lives allowing them to no longer rely on mountain stream water and burning wood or oil, propane for power like they did in the 90's and 2000's. The use of propane, CNG, ethanol, E-85, and small electric vehicles is more common there than you'd think, too, when long trips and large transports aren't involved. IE, a farmer would survey his fields on a moped or e-bike if the terrain allowed. It's not too difficult to power an ebike off solar or a small ethanol or propane generator, which is VERY commonly sold in China for cheap. Aliexpress sells some as cheap as $50 for a 1.5kw, which is suitable for such a job. And fermenting grain for alcohol and distilling it is a science as old as man, so it fits well in that part of the world. Now if they could only apply this logic on a larger scale for more urban or the dreaded suburban areas.
30.08.2021 um 09:08
Use the batteries for energy storage for renewable energies.
Emily Harris
01.09.2021 um 13:57
Faradion from the UK is actually shipping product to several countries around the world already, with the energy density that CATL is promising in 2 years' time already being achieved today. The potential cost advantage is also likely to be much more than the 10-20% indicated in this article, although it depends on several factors.
Jerry Roane
05.09.2021 um 19:03
Rolling battery swap at 40 mph solves the drawback of these cells. Swapping four or five times per trip let's the battery be low density but still get the job done.
Kunjan Shah
20.09.2021 um 21:08
Aluminium air battery is best. only needs shuffling plates..1000 times more available in mother earth
30.06.2022 um 15:28
But uses hundreds of times more energy to extract and recycle. Isn't rechargeable. Getting 50,000 uses out of something before recycling is a LOT more efficient and ecological.
03.04.2022 um 08:44
I think sodium ion batteries need improvements but i doubt if they will be used instead of lithium ion batteries.
William Tahil
11.05.2022 um 15:46
There simply isn't enough lithium to allow mass electrification of trains, planes and automobiles etcetera so sodium ion is coming in now at the right time to take over. LFP uses even more lithium than NMC because of the lower voltage, another plus for NaIon. The cost of NaIon is going to be much lower than LiIon, eliminates the difficult lithium supply chain and can be produced more or less ubiquitously from local materials.
30.06.2022 um 15:33
Sulfur-ion and Sulfur-Lithium-Hybrids are also things now. Sulfur is a lot like sodium in most every way, but slightly cheaper (~$30/kwh vs. $40-55/kwh for sodium-ion and $130-$180/kwh for various lithiums, excluding LICs and LTOs) The sulfur-lithium hybrids are advantageous because they're still cheaper ($90-100/kwh) but provide HIGHER density than regular lithiums, rapid charge/discharge, and relatively better (than li-ion) life expectancies (on par with LFP) while using much less lithium. They're likely to be used for high-energy applications like trains, planes, and freight, alongside LICs and LTOs (Lithium-Ion Capacitors and Lithium-Titanate-Oxides) which hold very little and cost a fortune, but are cyclically unlikely to wear out for many decades, and behave like ultracapacitors for their virtually unlimited rate of charge/discharge amperage.

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