Can Sodium Replace Lithium in the Batteries of the Future?
Our modern society has become heavily dependent on lithium-ion batteries for almost every type of mobile, portable technology. Lithium-ion batteries can be seen in everything from watches and smartphones to electric cars and even smoke detectors. However, there a number of problems with this technology and unfortunately lithium-ion cells aren’t as efficient as we’d like them to be.
Scientists and researchers are working hard to find a replacement for this old technology, however, finding something that is safe, inexpensive, and commercially viable on a large scale is challenging. So just what is the problem with lithium-ion batteries and will sodium-ion batteries eventually replace them?
The First Problem With Lithium: Volatility
Lithium is a very reactive and highly flammable element. This can make working with lithium dangerous. In its natural form, lithium deposits can be fairly benign. However, once the lithium has been refined into a form that can be made into a useful battery, it is in a highly reactive state. From the workers who process the lithium into a useable material to the people actually producing the batteries, there is always a risk involved in the process. In particular, the typical lithium-ion battery seems to have a notably lower reliability rating as there have been hundreds, if not thousands of examples of these batteries exploding or catching fire.
In 2016 Samsung had a well-known problem with the lithium-ion batteries in their flagship phones that had just come out at the time. The media, as well as the Internet, were flooded with stories of exploding phones and tablets (Swider, 2017). One even caught fire on an airplane! Around the same time that this was going on, a similar battery problem was happening with hoverboards. These fad devices began to unexpectedly explode and catch fire due to a problem with the lithium-ion battery technology (Molina, 2017).
Since then, electronics manufacturers have attempted to build fail-safes into their devices while also working to improve battery reliability. However, lithium-ion batteries still remain potentially hazardous which can make shipping or transporting them difficult.
The Second Problem With Lithium: Rarity
Few lithium reserves are known to exist around the world. Most lithium is concentrated in only four countries with Chile being the world’s number one producer of this coveted material. Chile has over half of the world's known lithium reserves (Home, 2018).
Because of this material’s rarity, there are many potential consequences that exist for the global economy, the environment, and the Countries who buy and sell lithium. For instance, most lithium production occurs by pumping salty brine from underground reservoirs into huge lakes where the water can evaporate. This leaves behind highly concentrated lithium deposits (Bell, 2018) that can be further process into a state that can be used for battery production.
In order to improve evaporation rates (and thus lithium production), the constructed evaporation ponds must be very large so that the brine solution can spread out to create the largest surface area as is feasible. Lithium can also be recovered from a variety of mineral and clay deposits that are extracted using more traditional mining techniques (Pennell, 2018). In either case, the potential impact on the environment can be significant.
Another thing to consider is that the scarcity of natural resources is one of the main causes of war and conflict. If one country has an abundance of material that everyone else needs, it can create tension amongst the nations. As our dependency on lithium increases, so too will the potential for global conflicts (Mellow, 2018). Furthermore, when you have entire economies that depend on a singular product to sustain itself, the is a significant risk that the country's long-term stability is in jeopardy.
Will lithium become the petroleum of the future? If nothing changes, it may. In 2015 alone, the global price of lithium tripled due to the growing appetite for this important material. This is expected to increase even more as demand increases.
The Potential for Sodium-Ion Batteries
While lithium is rare, sodium is very common. In fact, sodium is 4th most abundant material on earth, and it is very easy to obtain. This would make mining and sourcing the raw materials for a sodium-ion battery very inexpensive.
The challenge, however, is finding a way to make a sodium-ion battery that is both reliable and easy to manufacture. Sodium is a very reactive material (more-so than lithium), and even a minuscule exposure to air can cause it to degrade which makes manufacturing a sodium-ion battery difficult (University of Wollongong, 2018). Specialized machinery and very tight quality controls are needed to make a good, long-lasting sodium-ion battery. Furthermore, researchers are still looking to improve the process to make these batteries. One of their goals is to optimize the chemical makeup of the battery which would result in improved electrical output.
In a sodium-ion prototype developed at Stanford University, the cathode is made out of a combination of sodium, oxygen, and carbon while the anode is comprised of phosphorus (Turner, 2018). These materials can be obtained fairly easily from a variety of organic materials. This makes harvest materials relatively easy and inexpensive.
Moreover, some sodium-ion battery prototypes use something called "hard carbon" instead of phosphorus for an anode. Hard carbon can be created fairly cheaply by processing biomass that has a high-carbon content. In either case, the efficiency and performance of this type of battery is dependent on the anode. This is where researchers are spending most of their time trying to make improvements to this technology.
If a reliable battery can be made from this material, it could revolutionize the battery industry, especially for power plants, electric vehicles, and large-scale battery installations. However, you probably won't see any replacement for the batteries in your phone anytime soon. The lower energy density of sodium means that a comparatively larger battery is needed to provide the same amount of power as a similar lithium-ion battery.
In the end, much work is needed to make Sodium a viable replacement for lithium on a global, commercial scale. If current technology were to be commercialized, it's expected that consumers would only see a 5-10% decrease in the cost of batteries for their mobile technology. This is both due to the more complicated manufacturing processes as well as, the larger sizes of the batteries that would be needed to provide the equivalent energy output (Hellemans, 2017). In any case, research on sodium batteries continues, and it's possible we are only one break-though away from finding a viable replacement for lithium-ion batteries.
References and Resources
Bell, Terence. "An Overview of Commercial Lithium Production." The Balance. May 11, 2018. <https://www.thebalance.com/lithium-production-2340123>
Hellemans, Alexander. "How Long Before Sodium Batteries are Worth Their Salt?" IEEE Spectrum. December 15, 2017. <https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/at-work/innovation/how-long-before-sodium-batteries-are-worth-their-salt>
Home, Andy. "Commentary: Why Tesla is turning to Chile for its lithium." Reuters. February 7, 2018. <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lithium-supply-ahome/commentary-why-tesla-is-turning-to-chile-for-its-lithium-idUKKBN1FR2A1>
Mellow, Craig. "Chile Seeks to Rev Up Its Lithium Production." Barron's. March 10, 2018. < https://www.barrons.com/articles/chile-seeks-to-rev-up-its-lithium-production-1520647972>
Molina, Brett. "Hoverboards recalled for fire and explosion risks - again." USA Today. November 15, 2017. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/11/15/hoverboards-recalled-fire-and-explosion-risks-again/865643001/>
Pennel, Kyle. "How Does Lithium Mining Work?" Grab CAD Blog. February 20th, 2018. <https://blog.grabcad.com/blog/2018/02/20/how-does-lithium-mining-work/>
Swider, Matt. "Here's why the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Batteries caught fire and exploded." Tech Radar. January 23, 2017, <https://www.techradar.com/news/samsung-galaxy-note-7-battery-fires-heres-why-they-exploded>
Turner, Julian. "Are sodium-ion batteries worth their salt?" Power Technology. May 21, 2018. <https://www.power-technology.com/features/sodium-ion-batteries-worth-salt/>
University of Wollongong. "Sodium-ion battery packs a punch. Phys.org. April 5, 2018. <https://phys.org/news/2018-04-sodium-ion-battery.html>
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Christopher Wanamaker