An Electrifying Ride

An Electrifying Ride

Adding a dash of salt to the EV battery arms race might end China’s grip on lithium-ion batteries

While the media is focused on the geopolitical tensions between the US, NATO, its allies in Japan and parts of Asia, and the China-Russia axis on the other side, there is another global war brewing –the race for control over battery technologies for Electric Vehicles (EVs). EV sales are growing exponentially over the years. Now a grain of salt is being added to spice up this arms race, a technological breakthrough in sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries raises hopes of ending the Chinese stranglehold on lithium-ion batteries which power EVs today.

Worldwide EV sales hit 6.6 million in 2021, almost doubling from the previous year. In 2012, the nascent electric vehicle (EV) market was starting to gain momentum, with global sales of 130,000 cars. Today, that number of electric cars is sold every week.

Image source: Deutsche Welle (DW)

China dominates EV batteries

The big challenge today is China controls lithium-ion battery supplies globally for EVs. It is not only the largest producer of EV batteries but also dominates supplies of key raw materials. China is the world’s biggest market for EVs with total sales of 1.3m vehicles last year, more than 40% of sales worldwide. Chinese battery-maker CATL controls about 30% of the world’s EV battery market. And cobalt specialist suppliers Darton Commodities estimate that Chinese refineries supplied 85% of the world’s battery-ready cobalt last year; a mineral that helps to improve the stability of lithium-ion batteries. Most of that cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where almost 70% of the mining sector is dominated by Chinese companies.

An alarmed US reacts

The Chinese monopoly over this key technology has alarmed the US which despite having the world’s largest lithium deposits had neglected mining this white gold, letting the communist country steal a march over them. The alarm bells are ringing in Washington now. In February this year, US President Joe Biden. and the US Department of Energy (DOE) issued multiple notices of intent to allocate $2.91 billion in support of EV battery manufacturing as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The DOE shared plans to use the funds to further battery materials refining, production plants, and battery cell manufacturing facilities in addition to battery recycling. The US Departments of Transportation and Energy jointly announced nearly $5 billion set aside to support a national electric vehicle charging network under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program – another program established within President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

A breakthrough raises hopes

Simultaneously, a major breakthrough in battery technology is giving countries that do not enjoy the lithium advantage, are giving hope to mount a serious challenge to China, a tilt the battery arms race in their favor. Their hopes rest on the common table salt – sodium, available in plenty all over the world.

In January this year, the University of Texas at Austin researchers, funded in part by the US National Science Foundation, claimed to have developed a sodium-based battery material that is stable, can recharge as fast as a traditional lithium-ion battery, and showed the potential for a higher energy output than current lithium-ion battery technologies.

Ions in batteries travel between the negative anode and positive cathode when generating electricity. In sodium-based batteries, anodes can develop filaments called dendrites that could cause electrical shorts and increase the chances of a fire or explosion. This new sodium-based technology resists dendrite growth and recharges as fast as a lithium-ion battery. The team published the results in the journal of Advanced Materials.

The anode material is made by rolling a thin sheet of sodium metal onto an antimony telluride powder and folding the sheet repeatedly, resulting in a uniform distribution of sodium atoms that resist the formation of dendrites and corrosion. The process also makes the battery more stable, with a charge rate similar to a lithium-ion battery and potentially a higher energy capacity, according to researchers in the University.

The CleanTech edge

The major advantage of Na-ion batteries is sustainability, which is important for a world striving to be free of carbon-based energy sources. Scientists and EV makers are hopeful that Na-ion batteries, with hard-carbon anodes and cobalt-free cathodes, would emerge as sustainable lower-cost alternatives to Li-ion batteries for applications such as short-range electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage systems (ESS).

Currently, however, the performance of sodium-ion batteries lags behind that of lithium-ion batteries by about 20 years. For decades, research has been concentrated solely on the more powerful lithium. However, sodium has two disadvantages. For one, it is three times heavier than lithium, so sodium-ion batteries are also heavier, even though lithium accounts for less than 5% of the total weight of a battery.

The hope is in Graphene

That apart sodium batteries are less powerful because they inevitably lose around 10% of their energy density due to a 0.3-volt lower cell voltage. This is largely owing to the fact that the graphite anodes that have been used up to now in batteries absorb too little sodium.

But nanoscale carbon could provide a remedy. This is shown in a study by a working group at the Helmholtz Centre Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR). 

The study suggests that double layers of graphene, i.e., wafer-thin carbon, could store significantly more sodium atoms in the anode than the graphite used so far. If graphene electrodes were to be incorporated into lithium batteries instead of the graphite anodes commonly used today, it might be possible to achieve significantly higher storage capacities. These are all hopeful developments that promise to add a dash of salt to the EV battery arms race. Meanwhile, EV makers are desperately locking up lithium supplies across the world to insulate their supply chains against geopolitical tensions; that’s another story.

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