Is This the Death Knell for Lithium-Ion Batteries?

Jan 26, 2024
Is This the Death Knell for Lithium-Ion Batteries?

Hello — Lindsey here.

Before we get to this week’s riveting mailbag (I’m having a lot of fun — are you?), I asked Jeff if I could take some space to make a quick housekeeping announcement.

It’s an important issue related to our ability to make sure that every issued of Outer Limits gets to your inbox.

Google and Yahoo recently announced new requirements for big email senders like Brownridge Research.

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You can always find the last three issues at the bottom of every Outer Limits. We make it easy. It’s just one click, and it will take you right to the back issue. And every issue we’ve ever published is right here.

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Death Knell for Lithium?

Hi Jeff, it’s fantastic that you are back!! I had to hunt around a bit to find you and did so every few weeks after you disappearance from Brownstone. I have a question on battery tech and would like you opinion and thoughts please. I see yet another battery hype release — the release of the new sodium battery announcement. As with most of the new battery tech hype, it contains no lithium. Is this the death knell for lithium or will lithium keep on keeping on? Thanks for all your great work. — John H.

Hi John,

Thanks for your persistence to find me.

It took some time for me to acquire my website domain ( and to start publishing, which makes it a lot easier for my past subscribers to find me via a web search. It’s much easier now.

The timing of your question is actually fantastic. To your point, there have actually been several major developments over the last few months that make this a very interesting topic.

But before we get into the details, lithium — and lithium-ion batteries — aren’t going anywhere, at least for the next decade. I’ll share the reasons why below.

After the next decade, most would say that lithium-ion batteries will still be the majority of the market for consumer electronics and electric vehicle battery technology.

My position, however, is that it is premature to make that prediction.

The latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) are already being leveraged for the purpose of new materials development, which includes battery chemistries.

I last discussed this in my Dec 7, 2023 issue of Outer Limits, following the DeepMind AI’s discovery of 380,000 new stable crystals.

If you’re a newer reader (welcome!) and haven’t read this issue yet, I highly encourage it.

It’s a great story for understanding the extent to which artificial intelligence can augment — and enhance — human capability, understanding, and knowledge.

Here’s some of I wrote…

“What’s important is that DeepMind’s new materials were not known… and they had never been discovered previously.

Yet they hold incredible potential for a wide range of industries.

These types of materials — crystals — are used widely in semiconductor technology, supercomputing, superconductors, as well as in battery materials […]

This is exciting because, historically, materials development has been a slow, arduous process. Breakthroughs have been few and far between.

And advancements in an area like battery materials, for example, tend to come with small, incremental improvements every year or two, as opposed to large leaps in performance.”

But now, this is rapidly changing.

Within the next two or three years, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a major development with a new battery technology that performs even better than lithium-ion batteries, and almost certainly is cheaper to produce.

When that happens, the industry will construct new battery manufacturing plants (or upgrade existing ones) to manufacture the new batteries at scale.

I will most certainly be researching and writing about these developments at Brownridge, and in Outer Limits and future research products I am presently developing for my subscribers. 

Energy production, energy storage, and energy technology is a major focus of mine.

But for now, let’s get back to sodium-ion technology.

Sodium-ion technology works in a similar way to lithium-ion technology. The major difference is that it is sodium-ions that shuttle back and forth between the anode and cathode rather than lithium-ions.

And the reason that sodium-ion batteries have become such a hot topic over the last couple of years is because of the spike in lithium prices.

The reality is that the cost of an EV’s battery makes up around 40-50% of the total cost of producing an EV.

That means that extremely high battery materials prices can have an outsized impact on the cost of manufacturing.

Volume-weighted Average Lithium-ion Battery Pack and Cell Price

As we can see in the chart above, the total cost of the packaged EV battery rose in 2022 to $161 per kilowatt hour compared to the year prior.

It was the first year that the industry saw an increase, after more than a decade of steep price declines.

This was entirely driven by the spike in lithium prices and another battery materials.

Fortunately, the price of lithium has come down significantly, and it has been declining due to reduced demand for EVs in general.

We saw a drop to $139 per kilowatt hour last year, which is lower than the 2021 price.

The EV industry has long had a target of $100 per kilowatt hour (assuming no subsidies) as the price at which an EV price and an equivalent internal combustion engine car would be about the same.

As we can see above, it appears that it will still take a few more years before the industry reaches that price point.

This is what has created a window of opportunity and interest in sodium-ion battery chemistry. 

After all, the biggest advantage of sodium-ion batteries is that they are cheaper to produce. This is largely because of the abundance of sodium in the Earth’s crust.

Source: Financial Times

As seen above, sodium is about 1,300-times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium. 

And it’s worth mentioning that about 90% of the world’s refined lithium is produced by Chinese companies.

The process of mining, refining, and producing lithium is extremely dirty, carbon intensive, and uses toxic chemicals in the process. This is not something that is openly discussed by the clean energy industry, which naturally wants to position itself as “clean.”

With sodium’s abundance in Western countries — the U.S. in particular — there is a large benefit of dramatically reduced supply chain risk.

Sodium-ion batteries also don’t have the risk of overheating and catching fire like lithium-ion batteries.

And most people aren’t aware of another nuanced benefit…

Sodium-ion batteries maintain 90% of their performance at -20 degrees Celsius.

The issue of poor performance of lithium-ion batteries in cold temperatures is something that I wrote about in depth on January 18, during the weeklong super cold spell that the northern hemisphere experienced.

So on the surface, sodium-ion batteries sound great, right?

The materials cost is about one-third cheaper than an equivalent lithium-ion battery. We also have to consider the reduced supply chain risk, no overheating, and great performance in the cold. What’s not to like?

Well, there are some major challenges…

Sodium atoms are larger than lithium atoms, and they weigh a lot more.

The even bigger problem, as it relates to EVs, is that the sodium-ion batteries have about half the energy density of lithium-ion batteries.

This means that the driving range of a sodium-ion battery-powered EV is going to be a lot shorter than an equivalent lithium-ion battery powered EV. That’s a non-starter for most consumers.

A best-in-performance sodium-ion battery might deliver 160 watt-hours per kilogram...

An equivalent lithium iron phosphate (LFP) battery can achieve about 220 watt-hours per kilogram…

And a lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) battery can achieve as high as 350 watt-hours per kilogram.

Range is one of the most critical objections for consumers when they are considering purchasing an EV. That’s why lithium-ion batteries will continue to be used for the foreseeable future.

The reason that the timing of your question is so interesting, however, is that through 2023, sodium-ion EV batteries had never been commercialized or manufactured at scale.

But things radically changed in the last few weeks…

Two Chinese companies released sodium-ion battery powered cars. These are very small cars that cost less than $10,000.

JAC Group created a new brand — Yiwei — seen below.

Source: JAC Motors

As we can see above, the Yiwei is tiny. And it can only provide 68 miles of driving range. Not very useful for most consumers.

The other company is Jiangling Motors, with its new sodium-ion battery-powered EV. It too is tiny and has a slightly better range of 120 miles.

Source: Farasis Energy

In addition to the above, Chery Automobile has also announced that it will produce its iCar, which will also be powered by a sodium-ion battery. Those batteries will be manufactured by CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer.

The best way that we can think about the sodium-ion versus lithium-ion approach to batteries is that different battery chemistries will work for different applications.

Sodium-ion batteries might be suitable for these tiny cars in China with limited range. But they will have very limited appeal in Western markets where range is a critical necessity.

The technology will continue to improve, as will that of lithium-ion tech.

And now that lithium prices have fallen back down, any dramatic urgency of switching to sodium-ion has dissipated.

And just if you’re curious, there are two interesting sodium-ion tech companies that I have been tracking…

Natron Energy is primarily focused on sodium-ion batteries applied to energy storage applications. This is actually a much better application for this technology than EVs.

And Bedrock Materials is more focused on improving the energy density of sodium-ion batteries for EV applications.

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