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          A Leap in Energy Storage? Northvolt’s Sodium-ion Battery Breakthrough

          Circular Economy Enablers

          Written by: Rahul Bhushan

          Published: 5 December 2023

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          Key takeaways

          Northvolt's sodium-ion battery development marks a breakthrough in energy storage, offering a promising alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

          Sodium-ion batteries exhibit several advantages, including enhanced safety, cost-effectiveness, sustainability, and resilience to critical mineral price fluctuations.

          Despite facing challenges, sodium-ion batteries hold significant potential for addressing sustainability concerns and reducing reliance on scarce materials.

          The recent breakthrough by Northvolt, a Swedish industrial start-up, in developing a sodium-ion battery cell has opened a new chapter in the realm of battery technology. This innovation is not just a technological advancement; it represents a potential paradigm shift in how we approach energy storage.

          Sodium-ion batteries have emerged as an alternative to traditional lithium-ion cells. Northvolt’s reported achievement of creating a sodium-ion cell with an energy density akin to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells is a significant milestone.1 LFP cells are widely used in electric vehicles (EVs), including in popular models like the Tesla Model 3 and Model S. The key advantage of sodium-ion cells lies in their composition. These cells are free from lithium, cobalt and nickel – metals that are currently pivotal in battery manufacturing but are fraught with supply and pricing (and ESG) challenges.

          The strategic importance of this breakthrough cannot be overstated, especially considering the current geopolitical and economic landscape. The EU, for instance, has been earnestly trying to reduce its dependency on external suppliers for critical minerals. With China controlling a substantial portion of the global supply chain for lithium-ion batteries and the associated critical minerals, Europe’s push towards developing alternative technologies is both strategic and necessary.
          One of the key aspects of Northvolt’s new battery chemistry is that it is based on a Prussian White-based cathode, which is the fully reduced and sodiated form of the pigment know as Prussian Blue.2 This choice of material not only sidesteps materials like  lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite, leveraging a breakthrough in battery design and manufacturing, but also contributes to a safer and more thermally resilient battery.

          Prussian White-based cathode, Prussian blue

          Key Benefits

          Northvolt’s sodium-ion batteries promise several advantages. They are deemed safer, more cost-effective and sustainable compared to conventional battery technologies. They are also less vulnerable to price volatility in the global market for critical minerals. Furthermore, the use of materials like iron and sodium, which are abundant and widely available, enhances the attractiveness of this technology. Finally, they are particularly well-suited for energy storage solutions in diverse climatic conditions, making them ideal for regions like the Middle East, Africa and India.3 These batteries perform efficiently at high and low temperatures, a crucial feature for areas with extreme weather conditions.

          Northvolt’s initiative also aligns with broader sustainability goals. By developing a technology that utilises less environmentally taxing materials, the battery can contribute to the global effort to mitigate climate change.

          The establishment of sodium-ion battery production in Europe can lead to greater control over manufacturing processes, reduce the need for imports and foster a local economy for resource flows.

          This transition supports the objectives of initiatives like the European Green Deal, aiming for a more sustainable and self-reliant Europe.4 We believe it also supports the EU Circular Economy Action Plan and accelerating the transition to a more circular economy.

          Critical Obstacles

          However, while this innovation holds great promise, it’s also crucial to address the challenges that sodium-ion batteries face, particularly concerning cost, energy density and scalability. One of the primary challenges for sodium-ion batteries is achieving a competitive energy density compared to lithium-ion batteries. Although Northvolt has developed a sodium-ion cell with an energy density similar to LFP cells, it still lags behind the energy density of more advanced lithium-ion cells used in electric vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries for electric cars can reach energy densities of 250-300Wh per kg, whereas sodium-ion cells currently peak around 160Wh per kg. This difference is critical in applications where space and weight are limiting factors.5

          Cost is another significant factor. The production and material costs for sodium-ion batteries must be competitive with lithium-ion batteries for widespread adoption. While sodium and iron, the primary materials in these batteries, are cheaper and more abundant than lithium, cobalt and nickel, the overall production costs also depend on the manufacturing process, scale of production and technological refinements. Northvolt’s claim that sodium-ion batteries could be about a quarter cheaper than lithium batteries used in energy storage is promising, but this cost advantage must be realised at scale.

          Scalability is the third major challenge. Developing a new battery technology from laboratory scale to mass production involves numerous technical, logistical and financial hurdles. The industry’s infrastructure, primarily built around lithium-ion technology, needs significant adjustments to accommodate the production of sodium-ion batteries. While Northvolt is poised to establish production capacity for sodium-ion cells, the timeline for scaling up production to meet global demand is a crucial factor.

          Finally, the performance of sodium-ion batteries in real-world conditions over extended periods remains to be fully assessed, which will be crucial for gaining consumer and industrial confidence.

           

          batteries

          Conclusion

          Northvolt’s breakthrough in sodium-ion battery technology represents a significant leap towards more sustainable energy storage, aligning with the principles of the circular economy by using abundant, recyclable materials. This innovation promises environmental benefits and reduced dependence on scarce minerals, supporting initiatives like the European Green Deal. However, challenges in energy density, cost-efficiency and scalability must be addressed to fully realise its potential. The industry must adapt to incorporate sodium-ion technology and its performance in real-world conditions is yet to be thoroughly assessed. Ultimately, Northvolt’s development could herald a transformative shift in battery technology, fostering a more sustainable, efficient and resilient energy landscape.

          References

          1

          Financial Times, “Northvolt in new sodium-ion battery breakthrough”, November 2023. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/826fb9bb-b27f-4c68-ad4b-a54ad74713c9

          2

          The Engineer, “Northvolt claims sodium-ion battery density of 160Wh/kg”, November 2023. Available at: https://www.theengineer.co.uk/content/news/northvolt-claims-sodium-ion-battery-density-of-160whkg/

          3

          Northvolt, “Northvolt develops state-of-the-art sodium-ion battery validated at 160 Wh/kg”, November 2023. Available at: https://northvolt.com/articles/northvolt-sodium-ion/

          4

          Consilium, “European Green Deal”, 2023. Available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/green-deal/

          5

          Northvolt, “Northvolt develops state-of-the-art sodium-ion battery validated at 160 Wh/kg”, November 2023. Available at: https://northvolt.com/articles/northvolt-sodium-ion/

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