1707376114 A pinch of salt to destabilize the electric car order

A pinch of salt to destabilize the electric car order


Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his rivals just acknowledged that Chinese automakers are eating their lunch. But a pinch of salt could once again destabilize the new world order of the automotive industry. Brands like BYD and the French-Italian company Stellantis rely on sodium for electric batteries. This technology could accelerate electrification, loosening China's control over the sector.

Sodium can be the main component of electric vehicle batteries, replacing lithium used in most current vehicles. The process is practically the same. Ions, which are electrically charged atoms, move through a liquid electrolyte, allowing the device to store or release energy. However, the use of sodium makes the process faster than most lithium or nickel based models. Sodium batteries can reach 80% of capacity in just 15 minutes, the time it takes a Tesla Supercharger to charge a car for a 175-mile journey. In addition, sodium batteries withstand colder temperatures better.

Even more tempting, sodium is a cheaper alternative to lithium. This is because it is readily found in salt and soda, making it the sixth most abundant element on Earth. According to the US Geological Survey, while there are just over 100 million tons of known lithium deposits in the world, there are tens of billions of tons of soda ash. In 2022, the cost of a lithium-sodium-ion battery was $90 per kilowatt. Cells containing lithium were 30 to 40% more expensive, according to Wood Mackenzie.

The disadvantage is that sodium batteries only store half as much energy per kilogram as lithium batteries. That means larger batteries are needed to support the weight of a Tesla Model Y or a BYD Seal over long distances. However, at a certain point it is no longer possible to fit an oversized battery into a conventional chassis without upsetting the delicate balance between mass, proportions and aerodynamics. Consequently, unless there is a major technological advance, cars using this material will have a shorter range than many models currently on the market.

These properties led to sodium being overlooked in the early days of electric vehicles, despite decades of research into its potential. But companies became less worried about their shortcomings as prices for lithium and other key battery metals soared in 2021. Industry leader CATL announced plans to produce cheaper sodium-ion batteries that same year and began supplying the new products to Chinese giant Chery in April 2023.

The benefits for Westerners go beyond affordability. China's control over key battery metals allows it to dominate the entire electric car supply chain. The country could secure access to about a third of global lithium mining production by 2025, and as of 2022, Chinese companies already accounted for 72% of global lithium refining capacity.

Replacing lithium with sodium offers a way to restore balance. According to the country's Geological Survey, the United States has more than 90% of the world's known reserves of soda ash, the most profitable source. China has started using synthetic alternatives, but obtaining sodium from natural sources can cut costs by half, emit 70% less carbon dioxide and use almost 80% less water, according to Turkish manufacturer WE Soda.

Supply chains aren't the only factor that could cause this technology to shift focus away from China. Sodium batteries are suitable for smaller, cheaper four-wheelers, scooters and energy storage solutions. The demand for these products is growing in India and Southeast Asia. This could favor local champions such as Mumbai-based Reliance Industries, which bought a British sodium company in 2021.

Salt is still in its early years. According to Wood Mackenzie, as of August, battery makers had announced a total annual production capacity of 158 gigawatt hours – that's just a little more than Musk's gigafactories in Nevada can produce each year. Still, the geopolitical advantages of the sodium ion are too tempting to ignore.

The authors are columnists for Portal Breaking Views. The opinions are yours. The translation by Carlos Gómez Abajo is the responsibility of Five days

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