What a time it is to be a battery chemist—on paper, some are even multimillionaires,” says Jerry Barker, chief scientist and founder of the battery firm Faradion and a chemist who has been discovering battery materials for decades.
Breakthroughs in lithium-ion battery technology are being registered almost daily. “I can’t keep up with it all,” Barker says. Gigafactories for making lithium-ion batteries are appearing with increasing frequency. It would take something extraordinary to knock Li-ion battery technology off its perch.
And yet lithium has a fundamental problem. Demand for the element is so great for applications including electric vehicles, portable electronic devices, and stationary energy units that lithium mining companies are struggling to keep up. “The price of lithium will stay high,” says Michael Sanders, senior adviser at the consulting firm Avicenne Energy, speaking at the International Battery Seminar & Exhibit in March. In addition, about 90% of the world’s supply of lithium is controlled by Chinese companies.
As a result, batteries based on sodium are gaining attention, especially from Western companies seeking a secure supply chain for battery materials. The Achilles’ heel of sodium-ion batteries is that they can store only about two-thirds of the energy of Li-ion batteries of equivalent size. Developers of Na-ion batteries say they are steadily increasing the energy density of their prototypes. None are commercial yet, but serious competition for lithium could soon be on the way.
“Price of lithium has gone to insane levels!” Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted April 8. “Tesla might actually have to get into the mining & refining directly at scale, unless costs improve. There is no shortage of the element itself, as lithium is almost everywhere on Earth, but pace of extraction/refinement is slow.” Musk pointed to data from the information service World of Statistics showing that the price of lithium hydroxide had risen to $78,032 per metric ton (t) from $6,800 in 2019.
Price of lithium has gone to insane levels!
Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla
Meanwhile, the price of sodium hydroxide, a common sodium-ion battery precursor, is below $800 per metric ton. While lithium must be extracted from rocks or brine, battery-grade sodium hydroxide is readily produced during the electrolytic conversion of salt into chlorine.
Cost is indeed a key differentiator between lithium and sodium ion, according to Chris Wright, executive chairman of Faradion, which is developing sodium-ion batteries.