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Startups in the U.S. and Europe are racing to develop new batteries using the abundant, cheap materials sodium and sulfur, threatening to erode China’s dominance in batteries, alleviate looming supply shortages and push electric vehicles to the mass market.
Today’s electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries — made mostly of lithium, cobalt, manganese and high-grade nickel — whose prices have skyrocketed. Western manufacturers are struggling to catch up with their Asian rivals, while automakers expect to see supply shortages in car production by the mid-20th century.
Future electric cars – on sale after 2025 – could switch to sodium-ion or lithium-sulfur batteries, which could be as much as two-thirds cheaper than today’s lithium-ion batteries.
But its prospects depend on potential breakthroughs in electrochemistry from start-ups such as Theion in Berlin and Farradion in the UK and Lyten in the US.
Newer battery chemistries have issues to overcome. Sodium-ion batteries don’t yet store enough energy, and sulfur batteries tend to corrode quickly and don’t last very long.
Still, a dozen startups have attracted millions of dollars in investment and government grants to develop new batteries.
Currently, China dominates battery production, including the mining and refining of raw materials.
UK-based consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimates that China now has 75% of global cobalt refining capacity and 59% of lithium processing capacity.
“We’re still dependent on a material supply chain from China,” said James Quinn, chief executive of British sodium ion battery startup Faradion, which received more than £1 million in government grants from Innovate UK before it was bought by Indian conglomerate Reliance last year for £117 million. “If you look at the global geopolitical implications of that, it’s a challenge for energy security, economic security and national security.”
Asian battery giants are also working on new chemistries. China’s CATL announced that it will start producing sodium-ion batteries in 2023. South Korea’s LG Energy Solution aims to start manufacturing lithium-sulfur batteries by 2025.
The most expensive element in an Electric Vehicle battery is the cathode, which accounts for a third of the battery’s cost.
Most Electric Vehicle batteries today use one of two cathodes: nickel cobalt manganese or lithium iron phosphate. Nickel Cobalt Manganese cathodes can store more energy but use expensive materials (nickel, cobalt). Lithium Iron Phosphate cathodes typically don’t store as much energy, but are safer and often cheaper because they use more common materials.
The cost of key cathode materials such as nickel and cobalt has soared over the past two years.
That’s why many companies are looking to substitute cheaper, more common materials like sodium and sulfur, if they can overcome technological limitations.
“Sodium ion definitely has a place, especially for stationary storage and low-end vehicles in cost-sensitive markets such as China, India, Africa and South America,” says consultant Prabhakar Patil, a former LG Chem executive.
“The introduction cost for lithium sulfur is likely to be higher — even though it has the potential to be the lowest cost — making consumer electronics the initial application,” Patil said.
Michigan-based Amandarry and British startup AMTE Power are developing sodium-ion batteries that use sodium chloride, basically table salt, as the main component of the cathode. You don’t need lithium, cobalt or nickel, the three most expensive battery components.
Jeff Pratt, chief executive of the UK’s Centre for Battery Industrialization – a £130 million government-funded factory that leases out its production lines to startups to test battery chemistries – said he was trying to develop sodium-ion batteries. The start-up is planning to move into battery pack production because it is of “strategic importance” to the UK’s desire to be at the forefront of developing new and better batteries.
U.S. companies Lyten and Conamix, Germany’s Theion and Norway’s Morrow are developing lithium-sulfur cathodes that still require small amounts of lithium but no nickel or cobalt.
By using a ubiquitous cathode material, sulfur is often used in fertilizers and thus as cheap as salt, the startups claim battery costs can be cut by as much as two-thirds, potentially making electric cars less expensive.
Current Electric Vehicle battery packs typically range in cost from £10,000-£12,000.
“If we can hit the targets we’ve identified with some of the world’s largest automakers, then we’re off to the races,” Conamix CEO Charlotte Hamilton said.
Battery startups say they are in talks with major automakers, some of which are actively testing new batteries that could appear in mass-market electric vehicles by the end of the decade. Car companies like to keep their options open.
“Over time, more battery chemistries will come out,” said Linda Zhang, chief engineer on Ford’s F150 Lightning electric pickup truck. “It would be silly not to take advantage of those chemistries.”
At Tesla’s 2020 Battery Day, Chief Executive Elon Musk said a “three-tiered approach” to lithium-ion batteries using different materials is needed to deliver “truly affordable” batteries. Electric vehicles – mainly iron-based LFP battery cells – make larger, more powerful and more expensive EVs with nickel-based NCM or NCA cells and cobalt or aluminum cathode materials.
Battery developers hope to bring sodium-ion and lithium-sulfur batteries to the automotive industry’s door.
Duncan Williams, managing director of advisory Nomura Greentech, said recent discoveries are closing the gap on issues like energy density and cycle life, “so we would expect to see both of these alternatives taking market share in the future.”
Michigan-based Amandarry already makes sodium-ion batteries at its factory in Haining, China, which makes them ineligible for U.S. Inflation Reduction Act incentives.
The company said it will also build a plant in North America.
Partner Amy Chen said Amandarry’s first transportation application could be an electric two-wheeler.
In addition to being cost-effective, the Amandarry’s battery can be recharged very quickly — 80 percent in 15 minutes, Chen said.
AMTE Power chief executive Kevin Brundish said the company initially started with batteries for stationary energy storage systems, such as those used by grid operators, where energy density is less important.
Faradion’s Quinn said the company’s batteries also already compete with LFP batteries, and it has formed an energy storage joint venture with agribusiness giant ICM Australia.
On a relatively small scale, Faradion’s cells should be a third cheaper than iron-based LFP cells, Quinn said.
He said Faradion has had discussions with “most every major automotive company.”
“Within the next three to five years, you’ll see our batteries on the road.”
Sulfur is the “bad, hard chemical” that makes batteries work, says Celina Mikolajczak, chief battery technology officer at Lyten, a California startup that has attracted £47.5 million from investors, according to investment site PitchBook.
Theion’s chief executive, Ulrich Ehmes — which means sulfur in ancient Greek — said the problem with sulfur is that it’s so corrosive that it kills batteries after 30 charges.
But the Berlin-based company, backed by a handful of angel and private investors, has developed a method for treating and coating lithium-sulfur electrodes that should last a lifetime, he said.
Theion expects to begin shipping batteries later this year to power pumps in commercial rockets during launches. Ehmes said the company plans to begin shipping test batteries to automakers in 2024, with first production Electric Vehicle applications expected around 2027.
Theion believes its lithium-sulfur cathode can store three times more energy than a standard NCM battery, charge super fast, and cut battery costs by two-thirds to about £34 per kilowatt-hour.
“It’s cheap, it’s high energy density so it seems to be a no-brainer,” Ehmes said.
Tony Harper, director of the Faraday Battery Challenge, a UK government program that invests in driving new battery technology, said the new chemicals were crucial as the car industry became increasingly concerned about the supply of lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel.
“This will take up the strain of what we thought would be a very, very difficult situation,” Harper said.
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