Next Up: Sodium Ion Batteries need No Cobalt, No Nickel, No Lithium

April 14, 2023

New generation of sodium ion batteries are getting good enough to power small EVs, and hold huge promise for grid scale storage. Sodium makes of 3 percent of the earth’s crust, and is plenty cheap. These batteries do not need problematic nickel and cobalt to operate.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for phony cobalt hand-wringers to go after the oil majors, who are still going to be using cobalt, as they have for decades, in refining gasoline.

New York Times:

Now China is positioning itself to command the next big innovation in rechargeable batteries: replacing lithium with sodium, a far cheaper and more abundant material.

Sodium, found all over the world as part of salt, sells for 1 to 3 percent of the price of lithium and is chemically very similar. Recent breakthroughs mean that sodium batteries can now be recharged daily for years, chipping away at a key advantage of lithium batteries. The energy capacity of sodium batteries has also increased.

And sodium batteries come with a big advantage: They keep almost all of their charge when temperatures fall far below freezing, something lithium batteries typically do not do.

In Changsha, graduates from Central South University’s leafy campus are working on sodium battery technology at nearby research laboratories run by companies including Germany’s BASF, the world’s biggest chemical maker. One of the first large factories for sodium battery chemicals is already under construction a few blocks away from the labs.

Chinese battery executives said in interviews that they had figured out in the past year how to make sodium battery cells so similar to lithium ones that they can be made with the same equipment. The Chinese giant CATL, the world’s largest manufacturer of electric car batteries, says it has discovered a way to use sodium cells and lithium cells in a single electric car’s battery pack, combining the low cost and weather resistance of sodium c

“We are ready to industrialize it,” Huang Qisen, the deputy dean of CATL’s research institute, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Ningde, China. CATL, which is short for Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd., relies partly on chemicals from Changsha and recently built its first large-scale sodium battery assembly line in Ningde.ells with the extended range of lithium cells. The company says it is now prepared to mass-produce these mixed battery packs.

Multinational corporations are taking notice of sodium.

“It will shave off the peak of demand for lithium,” said Mike Henry, the chief executive of BHP, the world’s largest mining company. “I am confident we will start seeing sodium replace lithium for certain applications.”

Research into using sodium for batteries began in earnest in the 1970s, led then by the United States. Japanese researchers made crucial advances a dozen years ago. Chinese companies have since taken the lead in commercializing the technology.

Out of 20 sodium battery factories now planned or already under construction around the world, 16 are in China, according to Benchmark Minerals, a consulting firm. In two years, China will have nearly 95 percent of the world’s capacity to make sodium batteries. Lithium battery production will still dwarf sodium battery output at that point, Benchmark predicts, but advances in sodium are accelerating.

At next week’s Shanghai auto show, carmakers and battery producers are expected to announce plans for sodium batteries in at least some limited-range subcompact cars for the Chinese market.

The most immediately promising use for sodium batteries is for electric grids, the networks of wires and towers that transmit electricity. Batteries for grids are a fast-growing market, especially in China. Tesla said this week that it would build a factory in Shanghai to make lithium batteries for energy providers.

Sodium batteries need to be bigger than lithium ones to hold the same electrical charge. That is a problem for cars, which have limited space, but not for electricity grid storage. Utilities that switch from lithium to sodium can simply put twice as many big batteries in an empty lot near solar panels or wind turbines.

Unlike lithium batteries, the latest sodium batteries do not require scarce materials like cobalt, a mineral mined mainly in Africa under conditions that have alarmed human rights groups. The newest sodium batteries also do not require nickel, which comes mainly from mines in Indonesia, Russia and the Philippines.

China is ahead, but that doesn’t mean no one else is in the game..


A research team from the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has developed a sodium-ion battery with greatly extended longevity. The findings, published in the journal Nature Energy, provide a promising recipe for a battery that may one day power electric vehicles and store solar energy.

The researchers shifted the ingredients that make up the battery’s liquid core. That shift prevents performance issues that have caused trouble for previous sodium-based batteries. 

PNNL lead author Jiguang (Jason) Zhang, a battery technologies pioneer with more than 23 patented inventions in energy storage technology, said:

Here, we have shown in principle that sodium-ion batteries have the potential to be a long-lasting and environmentally friendly battery technology.

As PNNL explains, in batteries, the electrolyte is the circulating “blood” that keeps the energy flowing. The electrolyte forms by dissolving salts in solvents, resulting in charged ions that flow between the positive and negative electrodes. Over time, the electrochemical reactions that keep the energy flowing get sluggish, and the battery can no longer recharge. In current sodium-ion battery technologies, this process happens much faster than in lithium-ion batteries.

The PNNL team attacked that problem by switching out the liquid solution and the type of salt flowing through it to create a new electrolyte recipe. 

For the first time ever, scientists greatly extended the number of charging cycles (300 or more) with minimal loss of capacity (>90% retained) in a coin-sized battery in lab tests.

As PNNL explains, the current electrolyte recipe for sodium-ion batteries results in the protective film on the negative end (the anode) dissolving over time. This film is critical because it allows sodium ions to pass through while preserving battery life.

The PNNL researchers’ newly developed sodium-ion technology uses a naturally fire-extinguishing solution that is also impervious to temperature changes and can operate at high voltages. One key to this feature is the ultrathin protective layer that forms on the anode. This ultrathin layer remains stable once formed, providing the long cycle life reported in the research article.

Sodium-ion technology still currently lags behind lithium when it comes to energy density. But it still has its own unique advantages, such as temperature-change resistance, stability, and a long cycle life. Those advantages will prove to be valuable for applications of certain light-duty electric vehicles and even grid energy storage in the future.


4 Responses to “Next Up: Sodium Ion Batteries need No Cobalt, No Nickel, No Lithium”

  1. They sound great, but there’s always something they’re not telling us. It’s going to be a while before the battery scene shakes out.

  2. gmrmt Says:

    “But sodium leads to high blood pressure! Heart attacks will skyrocket!!” -some fossil fuel flunky, anytime soon.

    I’ve read of some battery configurations that are expected to lead to ranges of 500-1000 km. which is supposed to ease range anxiety. Has anyone looked at what effect simply speeding charge speed might do. Assuming charging infrastructure buildout, being able to add 200 kms range in ten minutes would make the long trip experience not much different than what you get now with ICE cars.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      For over a decade I’ve been anticipating the growth of graduates and retreads* with expertise on battery science, EV design, analog electric engineering, etc., because I remember what it was like coming out of school with a Computer Science and Engineering degree in 1982 and working in startup companies where everything was moving quickly and you had to be perpetually learning to keep up.

      (Now I’ll stop with the boring stories of glory days.)


      *People who change careers based on new interests…and money.

  3. […] lots of changing innovation in battery technologies from producers downstream because of environmental and human rights issues,” said Louisa Casson, […]

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