Can Sodium-ion batteries challenge lithium’s EV dominance?

Sodium-ion batteries present a promising alternative to lithium-ion technology due to sodium’s abundance and cost-effectiveness, addressing concerns over resource depletion and price volatility. Despite their lower energy density, sodium-ion batteries offer safety advantages and suitability for specific applications such as stationary energy storage and medium to low-speed electric vehicles.

As the sodium-ion battery industry matures, it is poised to contribute significantly to a more sustainable and resilient energy infrastructure, alongside promising technologies like solid-state batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, and graphene.


Source: Freepik

Lithium-ion batteries are in heavy demand today, to operate everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. The global lithium-ion battery market size was US$ 45.7 billion in 2022 and is expected to register a revenue CAGR of 13.1% during the forecast period. The demand for lithium continues to rise, and with it comes a growing concern about resource depletion and price volatility, potentially impacting the overall cost of these batteries. But amidst their dominance, we also see some challengers emerging.

Battery manufacturers are turning to alternative technologies, including sodium-ion batteries, to meet the growing demand for EV batteries. Companies like HiNa Battery Technology Co. in China and Northvolt AB in Sweden are investing in sodium-ion technology, and view it as a promising alternative for the battery market.

“Sodium-ion batteries are a promising alternative due to several advantages like abundance and cost, safety, and similar power value however there are certain challenges like lower energy density (a significant one) and commercialisation of the technology,” says Dr. Rashi Gupta. She is a well known serial techpreneur, fondly known as “Batterywali of India”, and a pioneer in India in advanced lithium batteries.

Sodium, a better alternative? 

Sodium, being the sixth most abundant element in the earth’s crust, reduces concerns about resource availability and price volatility associated with lithium. Moreover, these batteries can potentially reduce dependence on specific regions like China during the transition to green energy. This can also help reduce the impact of mining for lithium, cobalt, and aluminum that are used in LiBs. Sodium, widely distributed across the globe, serves as a plentiful resource in various geographical locations.

According to BloombergNEF, sodium-ion batteries could cut around 272,000 tons of lithium demand by 2035, or more than a million tons, if the supplies can’t meet lithium usage demands. Na-batteries offer several advantages over their lithium-ion counterparts, like they can discharge power more quickly, making them ideal for delivering short bursts of intense energy. Moreover, sodium, the main raw material for sodium-ion batteries, is abundant and inexpensive compared to lithium.

The market for sodium-ion batteries was only valued at US$ 1 billion in 2021. They are, however, gaining prominence as a potential alternative to lithium-ion batteries, mainly due to the abundance of sodium resources and their potential lower cost.

Lithium batteries are usually comprised of a cathode made of lithium-cobalt oxide, an anode composed of graphite, and an electrolyte solution containing lithium salts. Their popularity stems from their high energy density and extended cycle life, rendering them appropriate for a range of uses.

However, the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries is complex, starting with issues arising from mining and extraction leading to habitat disruption and water pollution to improper disposal that pose further risks. The volatile electrolyte from the batteries can cause fires or explosions, especially under high temperatures. Globally, lithium-ion batteries are expected to generate 8 million tons of waste by September 2022, yet only 5% are currently being recycled.

The rise of sodium-batteries

One significant advantage of sodium-ion batteries is their safety profile. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, sodium-ion batteries are non-flammable, making them safer for use in various environments, making them suitable to be used in regions with high temperatures like India, the Middle East, and Africa.

The concept of energy storage has propelled sodium-ion batteries into the spotlight, drawing interest from both the energy storage industry and investors. While research on sodium-ion batteries has been ongoing since the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the discovery of hard carbon anode materials in 2000 that significant progress was made toward commercialization.

Manufacturing sodium-ion batteries is similar to lithium-ion batteries, with the main difference being the raw materials used. Despite their lower energy density, sodium-ion batteries are well-suited for medium and low-speed electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage applications.

However, sodium-ion batteries have their limitations. They cannot match the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, which means they cannot store as much energy in the same space. This drawback makes them less suitable for applications where compact size is crucial, such as portable electronics. Yet, sodium-ion batteries excel in applications where size is less of a concern, such as stationary energy storage for solar power plants or grid support.

Can sodium batteries replace lithium?

As the sodium-ion battery industry matures and investments increase, these batteries are expected to become a cost-effective supplement to lithium-ion batteries, particularly in the field of fixed energy storage. This diversification of battery technologies could reduce dependence on lithium and alleviate pressure on supply chains, speeding the transition to green energy.

“Replacing lithium-ion entirely might be unlikely in the near future. Lithium-ion still holds the upper hand in energy density, crucial for portable electronics, etc. however, sodium-ion is a strong contender for applications where high energy density is less critical, such as: Large-scale energy storage for grids and renewable energy integration, lower cost and good safety characteristics are more important than maximizing energy density per unit size. Stationary power tools where weight is less of a concern, and affordability and safety may become more attractive.” – Dr. Rashi added.

Sodium-ion batteries have the potential to complement lithium-ion batteries, offering safety, affordability, and suitability for specific applications. With ongoing advancements in technology and manufacturing, sodium-ion batteries are poised to play a significant role in the future of energy storage, contributing to a more sustainable and resilient energy infrastructure.

Alternate promising technologies

Solid-state batteries offer the potential for higher energy density, faster charging, and improved safety, although widespread adoption requires significant research and development.

Lithium-sulfur batteries have a much higher theoretical energy density than lithium-ion, but face challenges related to durability and performance.

Graphene, while currently more expensive than other technologies, offers supercharged energy density, potentially extending the lifespan of devices and enabling lighter batteries for electric vehicles. It also promotes blazing-fast charging, reducing recharge times, and enhances safety by lowering the risk of fires or explosions.

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