China recently introduced the next big innovation in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) – replacing lithium with sodium, a far cheaper, less dense and more abundant material.
Sodium, which is found all over the world as part of salt, sells for one to three percent of the price of lithium and is chemically very similar. Recent breakthroughs mean that sodium batteries can now be recharged daily for years, chipping away at a key advantage of lithium batteries. The energy capacity of sodium batteries has also increased.
Despite being chemically similar, sodium-ion batteries have a considerably lower energy density than lithium batteries. A big advantage sodium batteries hold is that they keep almost all of the charge when temperatures fall far below freezing, something lithium batteries normally can’t do. (Related: Electric vehicles are unreliable and not cost-efficient – especially in cold weather.)
Chinese battery manufacturer CATL recently said at the Shanghai auto show that sodium-ion batteries will be installed in the Chery iCAR, which is due to go on sale by the end of this year. EV maker BYD added that its sodium-ion battery will also be in mass production in the second half of the year beginning with the Seagull.
President Brandon’s Inflation Reduction Act was designed primarily to offset China’s dominance of lithium-ion battery production worldwide. As per the New York Times, a switchover to sodium-ion batteries may make the East Asian nation’s control over battery manufacturing even greater.
Meanwhile, consulting firm Benchmark Minerals revealed that of the 20 sodium battery factories planned or already under construction around the world, 16 are in China. By 2025, the communist country will have nearly 95 percent of the global capacity to make sodium batteries.
However, experts are seeing one problem for China. The nation controls much of the sources of lithium worldwide but has little access to soda ash, which is the main source of sodium. The U.S. accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s readily mined reserves of soda ash. In fact, beneath the southwestern Wyoming desert, there is a vast deposit of soda ash that was formed 50 million years ago.
With minimal natural reserves of soda ash and a reluctance to rely on imports from America, China instead produced synthetic soda ash at chemical plants fueled by coal. And the synthetic soda ash industry has a record of hazardous water pollution, which includes the collapse of a pile of alkali slag in east-central China in 2016 that washed away cars and fouled a major river.
Tesla to open factory in Shanghai
Tesla wants to take advantage of China’s world-leading battery manufacturing industry to increase output and lower the costs of lithium-ion battery units.
First reported by Chinese state media outlet Xinhua and later posted by Tesla’s official account on Twitter, Elon Musk’s EV manufacturing firm said it will open a factory in Shanghai that is capable of producing ten thousand Megapack energy products per year.
Tesla was reported to break ground on the plant in the third quarter and start production in the second quarter of 2024. The new infrastructure will initially produce 10,000 Megapack units a year, equal to around 40-gigawatt hours of energy storage, to be sold globally. According to the car manufacturer’s website, Megapack is a powerful battery that “provides energy storage and support, helping to stabilize the grid and prevent outages.”
With the new Shanghai plant, the company will position itself better to meet the rising demand for energy storage worldwide. The current Megafactory in Lathrop, California is capable of producing 10,000 Megapack units each year. Musk said the factory in China will supplement the output from the factory in California.
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