The world is facing a shortage of lithium. As we reported last month, the boom in EVs has put the lithium supply chain under intense pressure with demand set to triple by 2025. This would require industry to discover and start extracting four mines’ worth of the metal per year just to keep up with predicted requirements.
The trouble is a lithium mine can take up to seven years to come online. Thus, in short, without an alternative we are potentially up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Thankfully, the world’s largest battery maker, China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), has been working on an alternative which could become the next big thing in the EV world. What’s more, not only could it fill in the lithium-shaped gap, it could help reduce the price of EVs and enable faster charging to boot.
Last year, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, made waves in the EV press with the announcement of technology that could improve battery longevity and reduce charging times. The tech in question was sodium-ion, using sodium as the battery’s electrolyte.
It’s not actually new technology, having been subject to a lot of research in the 1970s before lithium swooped in and stole the show. However, as the old saying goes, necessity is mother of invention and the industry is turning back to sodium-ion as an alternative for EV applications. CATL is working with China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology which is driving the ‘development, standardisation and commercialisation’ of sodium-ion batteries, according to Bloomberg.
CATL is hoping to have a supply chain for such cells running by 2023, according to Reuters.
On paper it seems like we needn’t worry about the impending lithium shortage if big battery makers are already tooling up to build a viable alternative. The trouble with sodium-ion batteries is that they can’t achieve the same energy densities as lithium-ion cells. CATL reckons it can squeeze 160Wh/kg out of the tech, which is comparable to a middle of the road EV lithium-ion EV battery, but almost 100Wh/kg less than top-end li-ion cells from the likes of Tesla.
However, whilst density might not be up there, sodium-ion can be charged more quickly – with CATL’s cells achieving 80 per cent in around 15 minutes with less degradation. What’s more, they have better lifespan (thanks to lesser degradation), work better at cooler temperatures (perfect for northern European climes) and are far less susceptible to runaway fires. To add the cherry on the cake, the lack of lithium, cobalt and nickel and inclusion of the far more common sodium makes the cells cheaper – much cheaper, at somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent less than equivalent lithium-ion units.
One final part to this puzzle is a gritty and uncomfortable truth: China was more-or-less the first country to announce its cooperation with the Taliban, which has swept back to power in Afghanistan in August. Forget altruism or a desire to help the population avoid the inevitable human rights abuses. China wants first dibs on Afghanistan’s enormous mineral wealth.
There’s something like $3tn of minerals in the rocks which have seen so much conflict and spilt blood for decades, now. Among these huge reserves is – you guessed it – lithium. China wants this to prop up its booming EV business and secure its future, and it won’t worry too much about how the metal makes its way from the ground into car batteries. It’s not just about commerce, either; being in bed with the Taliban enlarges China’s influence and with mineral security, helps cement its industrial might and place within the global hierarchy.
Sadly, like so many oil-rich countries like Nigeria or those in the Middle East, the general population isn’t going to feel the benefits of the wealth under a totalitarian regime working with a country which, to be frank, doesn’t care who it steps on if money and power are at stake.
Where sodium-ion comes in is that if EV makers in the west want to work ethically, as they have on issues like cobalt extraction, they now have an alternative to lithium sourced from Afghanistan while other supplies – such as those in Cornwall and South America – are brought online to overcome the shortage.