Some say ‘Na’: Sodium seeking energy storage stature

In a time of instability amongst various critical battery metals, the emergence of non-critical alternatives is all but inevitable, industry sources say.

And sodium-ion batteries are a top contender and alternative for lithium-ion batteries, as supply deficits for the latter continue to grow, IDTechEx Senior Technology Analyst Shazan Siddiqi says.

Speaking to Mining.com.au, Siddiqi suggests sodium, which can be used for the development of sodium-ion batteries (Na-ion), could alleviate the supply pressures of the battery market. 

“An opportunity does exist from a potential shortage of lithium supply in the medium-term, given the lack of necessary investment into raw material extraction. While there is sufficient lithium resource to meet forecast demand from lithium-ion before accounting for recycling, the capacity to mine this lithium has not grown at the necessary rate, offering an opportunity for alternative chemistries in the medium and long-term.

Sodium-ion batteries are beginning to become increasingly relevant in 2024 after many mass production announcements were made in 2023. OEMs may look to alternative chemistries to reduce reliance on critical minerals, with potentially volatile supply chains.”

Sodium-ion batteries are beginning to become increasingly relevant in 2024 after many mass production announcements were made in 2023

Siddiqi adds that sodium-ion batteries are touted to surpass lead-acid batteries in the future given overriding factors. 

“Sodium-ion is expected to replace lead-acid batteries in the future. Na-ion batteries are an attractive prospect in meeting global demand for carbon-neutral energy storage, where lifetime operational cost, not weight or volume, is the overriding factor. Stationary energy storage thus makes the perfect end-use and market for sodium given its performance and safety characteristics.”

However, Alchemy Resources (ASX:ALY) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) James Wilson believes lithium still offers the best shot of a green world until further research is undertaken.

He tells this news service that while sodium’s day in the sun may one day come, for now lithium is being sought after in the quest to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

“With a lot of these batteries, the technology will drive innovation, so at some point maybe a sodium battery will be a thing. But at the moment, we’re in the lithium phase.”

In December, Alchemy started a drilling program at the Karonie Lithium targets, which are located some 8km to the south of Global Lithium Resources (ASX:GL1) Manna Project, as reported.

Proving to be promising

In July 2022, Deakin University researchers in collaboration with University of Queensland developed a new non-flammable electrolyte material for use in sodium batteries, which provides a safer and cheaper alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

Electrolytes in traditional lithium and sodium batteries are commonly flammable, so this breakthrough – published this month in the prestigious journal Nature Materials – paves the way for a new critical material for safer batteries, the researchers say.

According to Deakin University’s Battery Research and Innovation Hub, sodium-ion batteries are proving to be a promising alternative to lithium-ion batteries — one that is cheaper, safer, and easier to recycle.  

The Melbourne-based university adds battery technology companies, such as Faradion, have already turned their focus to sodium-ion batteries.

Deep Sea Conservation Coalition Campaign Communications Manager Travis Aten says it’s because of research like this that alternatives to conventional batteries are on the rise. Importantly, he notes, the applications of sodium have been known for some time.

“Current trends include (cobalt-free) lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, lithium-free sodium-ion batteries, and solid-state batteries.”

Aten, whose focus is applied on deep seabed mining and ocean/climate issues, adds sodium-ion batteries have already begun making waves amongst several industries focused on delivering a carbon-free future.    

“Regarding sodium-ion batteries, several carmakers have announced sodium-ion EV models in development, including BYD and Sihau, a VW-JAC joint venture. In April 2023, CATL (SHE:300750) — the world’s biggest battery producer — announced that it will supply car maker Chery with sodium-ion batteries for EVs with a 400 kilometre range.” 

Positive properties

According to a report published by UK-based market intelligence company IDTechEx, the energy storage industry is increasingly reliant on critical raw materials such as lithium and cobalt. 

The report says Na-ion requires hardly any new plant technology, just different starting materials, and production parameters.  

“Currently, mainly pilot plants are running, and a few smaller factories are starting up, which only produce a few gigawatt hours (GWh) of Na-ion batteries per year, but the capacities that have been publicly announced by various raw material and battery manufacturers alone add up to well over 100 GWh by 2030. By 2025, significantly more capacity can be built up than that has been financed so far if investors are found for it in the course of 2024.”

According to IDTechEx, there is currently no cost-effective battery technology with an energy density between lead and lithium batteries. IDTechEx research shows the average cell cost for Na-ion batteries is US$87/kWh taking different chemistries into account. 

By the end of the decade, the production cost of Na-ion battery cells using primarily iron and manganese will probably bottom out at about US$40/kWh, which IDTechEx notes will be around US$50/kWh at the pack level. Na-ion cells are likely to come at a price premium initially, but IDTechEx expects a drop in cost/price in the short term through manufacturing efficiencies, scale, and technology development.

All about the alchemy

Despite being loyal to lithium, Alchemy Resources’ Wilson is open to what the metals of tomorrow, such as sodium, have to offer the market. 

“Did you ever think you could have a lithium-nickel lithium battery? No. Where are we going to be 20 years from now? It might go back to nickel, where they actually use nickel again, or use another sort of base metal. It might be a copper sort of cathode. Who knows?”

Siddiqi agrees that while the properties of sodium-ion batteries are positive, more work must be completed to deliver a full understanding of the technology. 

“Lots of R&D efforts are being undertaken to find the perfect anode/cathode active material that allows scalability beyond the lab-stage. Underwriters laboratories (UL) standardisation for sodium-ion cells is therefore still a while away and this makes OEMs hesitant to commit to such a technology.”

With this in mind and amid a backdrop of a subdued lithium and nickel market, there could be an emergence of sodium-based technologies in the medium-term.  

“Did you ever think you could have a lithium-nickel lithium battery? No. Where are we going to be 20 years from now? It might go back to nickel, where they actually use nickel again, or use another sort of base metal. It might be a copper sort of cathode. Who knows?

As reported by Mining.com.au, lithium is one of the most vital commodities needed for global decarbonisation, but stagnant prices caused by oversupplied markets in Asia have seen a price plummet of 81.23% since the start of 2023.

Back in June 2023, American multinational investment banking company Goldman Sachs forecast a lithium surplus for 2024 and 2025 due to new Chinese supply coming to market rather than technology.  

Comparatively, the sodium market is expected to reach US$392.84 million by 2027 — a CAGR of 4.47% during the forecast period — according to market researcher Business Research Insights. 

Top global manufacturers of sodium metal include Shandong Moris Tech, American Elements, China National Salt Industry, Wanji Holdings Group, and MSSA. 

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2023 Global EV Outlook report, EVs powered by sodium-ion will be available for sale in 2023-2024. 

Write to Adam Drought at Mining.com.au

Images: Alchemy Resources & Deakin University’s Battery Research and Innovation Hub
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Written By Adam Drought
Born and raised in the UK, Adam is a sports fanatic with an interest in Rugby League and UFC/MMA. When not training in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Adam attends Griffith University where he is completing his final year of a Communication & Journalism degree.