LONDON, England: In an effort to reduce China's dominance in the electric auto battery industry, ease looming supply bottlenecks and lead to mass-market electric vehicles, U.S. and European startups are racing to develop new batteries using sodium and sulfur, two abundant and inexpensive raw materials.
Modern EVs run on lithium ion batteries, mostly made with lithium, cobalt, manganese and high-grade nickel, which are commodities whose prices have surged.
With western producers struggling to keep pace with their Asian rivals, manufacturers expect car production to be hit by supply bottlenecks around the middle of the decade.
EVs arriving after 2025 could shift to sodium ion or lithium sulfur battery cells, which are potentially two-thirds cheaper than current lithium ion cells.
But this technology requires potential breakthroughs in electrochemistry, by startups such as Berlin-based Theion and UK-based Faradion, as well as Lyten in the U.S.
While many western start-ups have attracted millions of dollars in investment and government grants to develop new types of batteries, China dominates battery production, including the mining and refining of raw materials.
China currently accounts for 75 percent of the world's cobalt refining capacity and 59 percent of its lithium processing capacity, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy.
"We are still dependent on a material supply chain from China," noted James Quinn, chief executive of British sodium ion battery startup Faradion, as quoted by Reuters.
At the same time, Asian battery giants have also been developing new chemistries. China's CATL will begin producing sodium ion cells in 2023, while Korea's LG Energy Solution plans to begin manufacturing lithium sulfur cells by 2025.
Accounting for up to one-third of the cost of a battery cell, the single most expensive element of an EV battery is the cathode.
Most EV batteries today use one of two types of cathodes, which are nickel cobalt manganese or lithium iron phosphate.
Nickel cobalt cathodes are capable of storing more energy, but use costly nickel and cobalt, while lithium iron phosphate cathodes do not hold as much energy, but are safer and tend to be less expensive.
Over the past two years, the cost of key cathode materials, such as nickel and cobalt, have surged, leading many companies to find less expensive and more abundant materials, such as sodium and sulfur.
Prabhakar Patil, a former LG Chem executive, said, "Sodium ion definitely has a place, especially for stationary storage and low-end vehicles in cost-sensitive markets, such as China, India, Africa and South America," as reported by Reuters.
Current EV battery packs typically range in cost from $10,000-$12,000.