Thursday, April 13, 2023

A Salty Solution to Lithium Woes?

"Containerized Vanadium Flow Battery"
UniEnergy Technologies
via Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times' Keith Bradsher writes today about the development in China of batteries that use sodium instead of lithium, a far cheaper and more abundant material. Sodium batteries have the advantage of keeping almost all of their charge when temperatures fall far below freezing, which is an issue for lithium batteries. Recent breakthroughs mean that sodium batteries can now be recharged daily for years, which has been a key advantage of lithium batteries.

Sodium batteries are being developed at Central South University in Changsha. Chinese companies are leading the way in commercializing the technology, and they have figured out in the past year how to make sodium battery cells so similar to lithium ones that they can be made with the same equipment.

A significant challenge, however, is where to get the sodium. While salt is abundant, the United States accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s readily mined reserves for soda ash, the main industrial source of sodium (Chinese ventures generally use expensive synthetic soda ash). Another question hanging over sodium is whether lithium will remain costly. Lithium prices quadrupled from 2017 to last November, but have since dropped by two-thirds.

As Bradsher notes, utility companies could benefit from using sodium batteries, but they face unique challenges due to the regulated nature of their operations. These companies have to plan well in advance because they need regulatory approval to recover costs and adjust prices. Furthermore, utility assets like power plants and transmission lines can last for decades. Many of the facts that need to be ascertainable for utilities to implement sodium batteries are still question marks, as there's no prior history or long-term operational record.

Batteries are an increasingly important technology and the investment is definitely news. It's a tough area for a reporter to work in because a pair of the subjects (Technology, China) have familiar tropes that can get in the way. The national security implications of battery technology, though, do appear to be ones that the United States is taking seriously, as NPR's All Things Considered reported in August of 2022 in the case of vanadium redox flow batteries. Batteries are a component of green energy, and expecting foreign direct product rules to come into effect concerning the same may be a mere matter of time.