As the EV sector grapples with an unanticipated downturn, cost-effective and efficient emerging technologies can potentially reshape the future of electric mobility
In recent weeks, the global electric vehicle (EV) market, long dominated by the allure of lithium-ion batteries, has been jolted by a series of unexpected developments. Toyota, a steadfast proponent of hybrid technology, is witnessing a remarkable surge in demand, challenging the EV status quo. Concurrently, the EV sector is grappling with an unanticipated downturn in sales, signalling a potential shift in consumer preferences and market dynamics. Adding to this seismic shift, the emergence of sodium-ion batteries, fuelled by groundbreaking advancements from European and Chinese innovators, is poised to redefine the landscape. These batteries, hailed for their cost-effectiveness and efficiency, are emerging as a formidable contender to lithium-ion technology, potentially reshaping the future of electric mobility.
Redefining energy storage
In a move that could redefine the energy storage and electric vehicle (EV) landscape, industry giants are placing their bets on a revolutionary technology: sodium-based batteries. This strategic shift signifies a potential game-changer, leveraging sodium’s abundance and cost-effectiveness to challenge the dominance of lithium in the battery market. While Sweden’s Northvolt AB has announced a significant breakthrough in sodium battery technology, while Chinese EV manufacturer BYD Co. inked a major deal to construct a sodium-ion battery plant.
The implications of successful sodium-based products are profound. Not only could they mitigate lithium consumption, but they might also reshape the metals used in batteries, leading to fluctuating supply-and-demand dynamics. Cobalt and nickel, once forecasted to face shortages, have experienced revised demand estimates due to the emergence of alternative cells.
The first sodium-ion product
Northvolt AB has developed its first sodium-ion product, a technology that could cut reliance on scarce raw materials and lay the foundation for the company’s next generation of electric-car batteries. The cell has a “best-in-class” energy density of more than 160 watt-hours per kilogram, and was made without any lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite, the company said Tuesday. While the first sodium-ion cells are designed primarily for energy storage, coming generations may be able to deliver higher energy density for electric mobility.
Northvolt’s new product, which is based on a hard carbon anode and high-sodium Prussian white cathode, is more cost-effective and sustainable than conventional batteries made with nickel, manganese, cobalt or iron phosphate, according to the company. And with better safety at high temperatures, Northvolt sees it as especially attractive for energy storage in markets such as India, the Middle East and Africa.
China forays into the sodium-ion race
Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD through its subsidiary FinDreams Battery Co has entered into a joint venture with the Xuzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone. They plan to build a production line to make sodium-ion batteries with an annual capacity of 1 GWh in the first phase. The total investment for the project is estimated to be about 1 billion Chinese yuan ($157 million USD). The batteries produced at the facility will be lithium-free and are intended to be a more affordable option than lithium-ion batteries.
Construction on the facility is set to begin in 2023, with production planned to start in 2024. The facility and joint venture fits into BYD’s broader strategy to diversify its battery technologies and production capabilities for its electric vehicles and energy storage products.
Toyota’s best of hybrid pays off
Meanwhile, in another setback to EVs, Toyota recently reported a 41% increase in global hybrid vehicle sales for Q3 2022, selling 579,000 hybrid models. This is up substantially from 409,000 in Q3 2021. For the fiscal first half of 2022, Toyota hybrid sales were up nearly 48%. The top selling hybrid models include the Corolla, RAV4, Camry and others.
Toyota was conservative regarding battery chemistry advancements required to make affordable EVs with sufficient range. They didn’t want a hugely expensive/heavy battery pack limiting vehicle performance. Toyota favoured a gradual transition to electric via hybrids to leverage their expertise, give charging infrastructure time to catch up, monitor battery tech improvements in affordability/density, and match customer comfort levels. Their long-term commitment is to electrification, but through a bridging hybrid path.
Industry analysts attribute the growth to high gas prices and Toyota’s decades long experience in hybrids. Toyota pioneered mass-market hybrids and has the deepest product range. Meanwhile, electric vehicle startups like Rivian, Lucid and others have been struggling with production issues, parts shortages, high costs and weakening demand. For example, Rivian produced over 4,400 EVs in Q2 but delivered only 4,467 due to supply chain problems, a quarter below its target. Tesla also sold fewer electric cars in Q3 2022 compared to the year before, with deliveries down over 8% year-over-year.
Look out for Part 2, where we discuss China’s global control on lithium-ion battery supplies, the US reaction, and a major breakthrough in battery technology that could boost countries which do not enjoy the lithium advantage.
[To be continued]