Sodium-ion batteries: Can table salt feed our renewable energy needs?

Do you know that sodium, the common element found in our kitchen, can be used to make batteries? In this article, we explore how it works, how it compares with other battery types, recent developments, and its bright future ahead.

Written by 
Andrew Hagan
Edited by 
Victoria Chen-Englert
Updated on 
March 7, 2024
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1. Introduction

In the relentless pursuit of sustainable energy solutions, the renewable energy sector is always on the lookout for innovative technologies that can store energy efficiently, reliably, and with minimal environmental impact. This helps to mitigate the inherent variability of many renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, whose output is heavily dependent on factors like weather and time of day.

Enter sodium-ion batteries, a promising alternative that has been gaining momentum in recent years. In this article, we delve into the world of this emerging battery technology, exploring how sodium-ion batteries work, their advantages and disadvantages compared with conventional lithium-ion batteries, key recent developments, and their potential role in renewable energy storage, electric vehicles, decarbonization, and sustainability.

2. How Sodium-Ion Batteries Work

Sodium-ion batteries, as the name suggests, use sodium ions to store energy. Sodium is a cheap and abundant element found in the Earth's crust as well as seawater, and its availability, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness provide a compelling case for its use in batteries.

The basic operation of sodium-ion batteries is similar to that of lithium-ion batteries. During charging, sodium ions are extracted from the cathode and move through the electrolyte to the anode, where they are stored within the anode structure via a process known as intercalation. Upon discharging, this process reverses, with sodium ions moving back to the cathode, thereby releasing the stored energy for use in the form of electrons flowing through the external circuit.

However, because of the larger size of sodium ions compared with lithium ions, sodium-ion batteries require electrodes that can accommodate these bigger ions. This has necessitated the development of innovative materials and electrode designs specifically tailored for sodium ions, which is one reason why sodium-ion batteries have proved relatively difficult to commercialize — until recently.

3. Advantages and Disadvantages of Sodium-Ion Batteries

Sodium-ion batteries have a number of benefits over existing battery technologies:

  • Abundance and Accessibility: Sodium is far more abundant and widely distributed on Earth than lithium. In fact, sodium comprises approximately 2.3% of the Earth's crust, making it one thousand times more plentiful than lithium at only 0.002%. Sodium can also be extracted from seawater, another readily available and inexpensive resource. This is expected to lead to lower manufacturing costs and cheaper batteries, especially in regions where lithium resources are limited.
  • Cost Effectiveness: In addition to the lower material cost of sodium compared with lithium, sodium-ion batteries permit the use of inexpensive aluminum foil as the current collector for both the anode and cathode, whereas lithium-ion batteries require expensive copper foil at the anode.
  • Cycle Life: A major selling point of sodium-ion batteries is their very long lifespan of 3,000–6,000 cycles. This far exceeds the values attainable with other battery types, making them a good solution for long-term energy storage.
  • Environmental Impact: Sodium-ion batteries are seen as more eco-friendly, owing to the abundance of sodium and the potential for less environmentally intensive mining processes.
  • Operating Temperature Range: Sodium-ion batteries tend to accommodate a wider range of temperatures than lithium-ion batteries, displaying good performance at up to 60 degrees Celsius.
  • Safety: Sodium-ion batteries are believed to have a lower risk of thermal runaway and fires compared with lithium-ion batteries, making them safer for large-scale energy storage applications. They are also safe to transport at 0 V, in contrast to lithium-ion batteries, which are usually shipped partially charged to avoid over-discharge.

With this, however, come several disadvantages:

  • Energy Density: Sodium-ion batteries generally possess a lower energy density than lithium-ion batteries, which means they store less energy for the same volume or weight. For example, current sodium-ion batteries have a typical gravimetric energy density of 140–150 Wh/kg, whereas lithium-ion batteries may reach 140–280 Wh/kg depending on their chemistry. For some applications where a high energy density is crucial, such as aviation and long-range vehicles, this is a severe limitation. For others, like stationary energy storage and shorter-range vehicles, it can be offset by the superior longevity and safety of sodium-ion batteries.
  • Maturity and Performance: As an emerging technology, sodium-ion batteries have yet to reach their full potential, and performance metrics such as cycle life and charging speed still require further development to match or surpass those of lithium-ion batteries. Moreover, the supply chain for hard carbon, a preferred anode material for these batteries on account of its superior ability to intercalate the larger sodium ions, is not yet well established, leading to higher costs.

4. Key Recent Developments

Impressive recent breakthroughs in sodium-ion batteries have started to overcome the initial shortcomings of this technology. Innovations in electrode materials and cell design have led to significant improvements in the energy density, lifespan, and charging rates of these batteries.

In just the last year, several companies announced major achievements in the utilization of sodium-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs). This began in February 2023, when Volkswagen-backed Chinese firm JAC unveiled the world's first EV powered by a sodium-ion battery, which was developed by Beijing-based HiNa Battery Technology. The vehicle, named Yiwei 3, finally hit the market in January of this year, with a battery pack capacity of 23.2 kWh and an energy density of over 140 Wh/kg.

In the months after the initial announcement, other Chinese EV makers began to follow suit. In March, JMEV, which is majority owned by Renault, announced its plans to use sodium-ion batteries from Farasis Energy in its EV3 small electric car. The next month, EV giants BYD and Chery both divulged details of their own EVs based on sodium-ion batteries.

In terms of stationary energy storage, August saw the launch of a grid-scale sodium-ion battery project in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao by battery manufacturer Great Power. This is reported to be the world's first such system, with an energy density of 150 Wh/kg and a cycle life of up to 3,000 cycles. In October, Encorp and Natron Energy announced their joint development of a multi-megawatt hybrid power platform based on the use of sodium-ion batteries to increase generator efficiency.

Other companies are continuing to push the boundaries of what's possible with sodium-ion batteries. In November, Swedish companies Altris and Northvolt announced their joint development of a sodium-ion battery cell with a best-in-class energy density surpassing 160 Wh/kg using the patented cathode material Altris Prussian White. Just three weeks later, Indian firm KPIT reported that it had exceeded this value and hit 170 Wh/kg with some of its sodium-ion batteries, with hopes to reach 220 Wh/kg.

Efforts to mass-produce sodium-ion batteries are also now well underway. The world's first gigafactory for these batteries was opened in November 2022 by Chinese state-owned power company China Three Gorges Corporation and HiNa Battery Technology. At the beginning of this year, BYD started the construction of a $1.4 billion sodium-ion battery factory in Xuzhou with an estimated capacity of 30 GWh, while French firm Tiamat has obtained funding for its own 5 GWh facility. Other companies, such as the new U.S. venture Peak Energy and U.K.-based AMTE Power, also have their own plans to manufacture sodium-ion batteries on a large scale.  

These remarkable advances mark a significant turning point for sodium-ion batteries, propelling them from a promising alternative to a viable and competitive technology in the EV and energy storage sectors. With companies around the globe racing to improve and further commercialize this technology, the future of sodium-ion batteries appears increasingly bright, signaling a growing confidence in the technology's potential to become a viable alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

5. Conclusion: The Role of Sodium-Ion Batteries in Renewable Energy and Sustainability

Sodium-ion batteries represent a promising avenue for advancing renewable energy storage, transportation electrification, and decarbonization goals. Their potential for lower costs, improved safety, and reduced environmental impact aligns with the global push toward more sustainable energy systems. While challenges remain in terms of energy density and technology maturity, the rapid pace of development suggests that these bottlenecks are increasingly being overcome.

In the context of renewable energy storage, sodium-ion batteries may soon play a critical role in stabilizing the grid and ensuring a consistent energy supply from intermittent sources such as wind and solar power. Moreover, an increasing number of EV manufacturers have started to incorporate sodium-ion batteries in their vehicles. Together, these developments position sodium-ion batteries as a crucial technology in our transition to a decarbonized energy landscape, especially in regions with limited access to lithium resources.

While sodium-ion batteries are not suitable for every application, their development and integration into the energy ecosystem represent a significant step forward in our collective quest for sustainable, reliable, and safe energy storage solutions. As the technology continues to evolve, the role of sodium-ion batteries in renewable energy storage, decarbonization, and sustainability will undoubtedly expand.

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