Global markets

Is it too late for the US to rival China on sodium-ion batteries?

U.S. companies are working to establish themselves in sodium-ion battery manufacturing — before Chinese firms dominate the market.

May 16, 2024
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Workers at a battery manufacturing facility in China. Photo credit: CFOTO / Future Publishing via Getty Images

Workers at a battery manufacturing facility in China. Photo credit: CFOTO / Future Publishing via Getty Images

A select group of U.S. companies is aiming to steal China’s lead in sodium-ion battery manufacturing.

  • The top line: U.S. sodium-ion battery companies like Acculon Energy, Bedrock Materials, and Natron Energy are hoping to corner the emerging market, and several are fast approaching commercial production. But China has gotten their first, having launched the world’s first large-scale energy storage plant based on the technology just this month.
  • The market grounding: Because they use cheap, readily available materials, sodium-ion batteries have the potential to prevail over lithium-ion in applications such as storage and industrial vehicle transport, where energy density is not a priority. Chinese manufacturers produced enough lithium-ion batteries in 2023 to supply the entire world, but the open question is whether they can replicate that success in the sodium-ion market — or if U.S. competitors stand a chance. 
  • The current take: Spencer Gore, CEO of the U.S. sodium-ion hopeful Bedrock Materials, said he expects to see production volumes “grow exponentially” in the coming years. “Inside China, there are perhaps a dozen players each producing materials and cells on some scale,” he said. “Outside of China, it’s only a small handful.”  

U.S. manufacturers will need to move quickly if they are to outflank their peers in China. After crossing the “chasm from lab to market,” sodium-ion batteries are now in early mass production in China, Gore said. BYD and CATL, two of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery manufacturers, both announced mass production of sodium-ion products for electric vehicles last year. 

“Most of the world’s battery cell makers are headquartered in China, Korea, and Japan,” Gore said. “Local sodium-ion technologies will need to partner with, rather than compete against, the incumbent giants that have experience producing battery products at scale.”

But unlike with other climate technologies, China’s sodium-ion lead is relatively small. U.S. companies are also closing in on large-scale manufacturing; Natron announced commercial-scale operations last month and Acculon is planning commercial production in the fourth quarter of 2024. Gore said the Inflation Reduction Act had created “a highly attractive incentive base” to build domestic sodium-ion manufacturing capacity.

“U.S. companies are behind, but well positioned to catch up,” he added. 

Sodium-ion’s appeal, and its applications

According to a March estimate from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, global sodium-ion cell production capacity is expected to reach over 330 gigawatt-hours by 2030. 

Given that sodium-ion batteries are poorly suited to automotive and consumer electronics applications — by far the two largest sources of demand for lithium-ion products today — this forecast implies significant penetration in the stationary storage and industrial segments.

Sodium-ion’s big appeal is that sodium is the sixth most abundant chemical in the Earth’s crust and is found all over the world. This should mean major cost savings for battery makers; Bedrock, for one, claims savings of up to 40% as compared with lithium-ion. 

But, as Natron emphasized in a press release, they also come with safety and sustainability benefits, given that they’re free of materials such as lithium and cobalt that are often extracted with little ethical or environmental oversight.

Natron’s factory in Holland, Michigan, has enough manufacturing muscle for 600 megawatts of sodium-ion batteries a year. The facility stems from a $40 million conversion of a $300 million lithium-ion battery plant. It will deliver batteries specifically to data centers.

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Meanwhile, Acculon is aiming for two gigawatt-hours of sodium-ion battery manufacturing capacity. The company is using cells made in China in its design, and is also hoping to target data center operators, along with energy storage and off-highway vehicle fleet owners. 

Acculon co-founder and president Andrew Thomas said the latter use case is particularly promising, because sodium-ion batteries can recharge in 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the chemistry. This provides flexibility for industrial vehicles that often are used in harsh environments.

“Sodium-ion technology can charge and discharge in those environments without elaborate thermal management,” he said. “It performs well in cold; it performs well in hot. That’s been a blocking point for lithium-ion in some applications.”

But it is unclear how far or fast sodium-ion could compete with lithium-ion in mainstream electric vehicles. 

Some are bullish: European EV battery maker Northvolt, for instance, has developed a sodium-ion product for energy storage but claims it could use the technology for vehicles in future. And Bedrock said it could achieve an energy density of more than 300 watt-hours per liter, enough to compete with lithium-ion in entry-level and commercial fleet vehicles.

But Thomas at Acculon is more skeptical. 

“[Manufacturers of] American autos are pushing for a car that can have incredible range and incredible chargeability, and you need a different energy storage technology to do that,” he said. “Sodium-ion isn’t that thing. It’s never going to reach those energy densities.”

For now, sodium-ion’s potential in stationary storage applications has begun to attract the attention from investors including California’s CalSEED fund, which has backed Bedrock Materials and Unigrid of San Diego. 

“The energy transition needs a wide variety of energy storage solutions,” said CalSEED director Joy Larson. “Lithium-ion is great, but sodium is a more plentiful and accessible element.”

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