CATL and BYD, two of the world’s largest manufacturers of batteries and electric cars, have unveiled new battery technologies that are raising high hopes due to their use of sodium instead of lithium as a critical raw material. These new power storage devices are seen as an alternative to conventional lithium-ion batteries, which are becoming increasingly expensive as global demand from the auto industry grows rapidly and the development of new mines to extract the coveted metals fails to keep pace.
CATL’s sodium-ion batteries can be charged 80 percent within 15 minutes, are less flammable, and can tolerate cold temperatures better than current standard lithium-ion batteries. BYD’s LFP batteries, which continue to use lithium but do not contain nickel or cobalt, are already in use and are about a quarter cheaper than other lithium-ion batteries but are also somewhat less powerful.
The sodium-ion and lithium-iron phosphate batteries unveiled by CATL and BYD are said to be both less expensive and more environmentally friendly than conventional lithium-ion batteries. However, the sodium batteries available today can store about a third less electricity than lithium-ion batteries for the same weight. So engineers need to keep tinkering to improve performance.
Christoph Neef, a battery expert at the Fraunhofer ISI research institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, expects European manufacturers to install the sodium-ion battery in e-cars in four years at the earliest. In China, it will probably happen faster. The technology race for the best batteries is reminiscent of the fable of the hare and the hedgehog: China is always well ahead of Europe. European companies are just starting to build their own factories for the production of conventional lithium-ion batteries in order to become less dependent on Asian suppliers such as CATL, LG, and Panasonic. In China, on the other hand, manufacturers have long been working on new technologies.
Another proven remedy for the shortage of raw materials for battery materials is the circular economy. Emma Nehrenheim, who, as “Chief Environmental Officer,” is responsible for environmental issues at the Swedish manufacturer Northvolt, a leading company in the young European battery cell industry, promises that in the long term, more than 90 percent of battery materials can be recycled. But the battery cell circular economy will probably not take off until 2030. After all, the many electric cars being sold now are supposed to have a long life on the roads before their power storage units end up in the recycling system.
The rising cost of batteries is making the switch to electric mobility more expensive, and there are fears that electric cars could become unaffordable for ordinary wage earners. As a result, the auto industry and policymakers are concerned about the strategic battery materials that could become scarce. The development of new mines to extract the coveted metals is not keeping pace with the e-car boom, and prices for nickel and lithium have reached record highs in recent years.
The new sodium-ion and lithium-iron phosphate batteries are promising alternatives to conventional lithium-ion batteries. Because they rely on cheaper and more readily available raw materials, they can also help reduce the need for critical raw materials and lower the cost of batteries. However, engineers must continue to work on performance to make them suitable for mobile use in cars.
Overall, electromobility remains a promising alternative to the internal combustion engine, as it can help reduce CO2 emissions and thus combat climate change. New battery technologies and the circular economy offer hope for overcoming the shortage of raw materials and making the switch to electromobility affordable for more people. It remains to be seen which technology will ultimately win the race for the best batteries for electric cars.