Sodium-ion batteries could soon power China's EVs. Image: Facebook

China is on course to run the world’s largest fleet of electric cars and public transport buses, meaning it is producing and installing more lithium-ion type batteries than all other countries combined.

But Beijing’s go-green and go-electric imperative to drive out gas-guzzling vehicles and lead the global charge into emission-free travel is being hobbled by a fast-approaching problem: a lack of lithium.

Now, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars has signaled it’s switching lanes into new battery technologies, not least sodium-ion systems that will seek to revive and reconfigure decades-old designs for the new age. 

Contemporary Amperex Technology Limited (CATL), China’s leading lithium-ion battery producer, is currently powering electric vehicles from both Chinese automakers and their American competitor Tesla. 

But the doubling in prices in imported lithium materials, sub-assemblies and other key energy metals since this year are threatening to crimp CATL’s earnings at a time when Chinese manufacturers’ dependence on foreign imports from regional rivals, namely Australia, and far-flung tumultuous countries is becoming a national security issue.  

CATL, based in China’s southeastern Fujian province, has admitted that cost and supply chain safety issues are hitting the company’s profitability, with the more lithium-ion batteries it churns out, the thinner its profit margins.  

The Economic Observer newspaper cited data from the Commerce Ministry and China Customs indicating that about 80% of China’s concentrated spodumene (lithium ore) imports in 2020 came from Australia.

That comes at a time when Beijing seeks to exact economic and trade revenge on Canberra for calling for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

This photo taken on November 14, 2020, shows employees working in the workshop of a lithium battery manufacturing company in Huaibei, eastern China’s Anhui province. Photo: AFP/Stringer
Sodium-ion batteries are cheaper to mass-produce and safer to use. But their power intensity is still lower than that of the mainstream lithium-ion units in wide use. Photo: Handout

Shao Yuanjun, an energy specialist with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology-affiliated consultancy CCID and a former researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told Asia Times that lithium metal delivery from Australia and other major miners across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile in South America could all see more price hikes due to rising geopolitical and even transport uncertainties. 

Shao warned that any disruptions to lithium deliveries could quickly upend China’s nascent EV sector. He said Beijing would certainly encourage major stakeholders like CATL to diversify into other battery technologies and solutions like sodium-ion cells that have existed for decades but have played second fiddle to lithium applications. 

CATL president Zeng Yuqun unveiled this month an ambitious roadmap for developing, trials and commercialization of advanced sodium-ion batteries, drawing on the firm’s “cache of technologies” from years of research.

The CAS has also been leading related sodium-ion studies after the Ministry of Science and Technology issued a plan in 2016 to expedite research and approval.

The large-scale application of sodium-ion batteries is also featured predominantly in a policy paper on energy storage and battery technologies jointly promulgated by the Chinese State Council’s National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Administration this April. 

But there are still big stumbling blocks. CATL’s Zeng conceded that the energy intensity of his company’s sodium-ion battery prototypes would invariably pale in comparison with that of mainstream lithium-ion units, even though sodium salts normally have better electric conductivity performance than lithium metals. 

Zeng stressed that sodium-ion batteries would be significantly cheaper to mass-produce – thanks to China’s abundance of the alkali metal in the form of rock salt and seawater – and would be safer to use and quicker to charge. He added that switching from lithium to sodium would be easy as both were analogous to each other in terms of working principle and cell construction. 

Zeng previously caused a stir by warning that lithium-ion batteries would near their obsolescence due to insufficient supplies in about 20 years, as all the earth’s lithium reserves combined would only be enough to make batteries for about 1.5 billion Tesla sedans.

The Wuling Hongguang Mini was the most popular electric vehicle in China in the first three months of 2021. Photo: Handout

CATL may first explore commercially viable models to market sodium-ion products for energy storage for solar and wind electricity and as a possible substitute for lithium-ion batteries for cost-conscious users, starting with electric bicycles and low-speed vehicles.

The company is also reportedly in talks with the state-owned China National Salt Industry Group to secure supplies. 

Toyota is also said to be running a trial of a sodium-ion-based powertrain design with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers on a single charge, according to Nikkei. 

The charge intensity and electric voltage value of a sodium-ion system developed by the CAS’s Institute of Physics also hit 180 watt-hours per kilogram in lab tests, almost on a par with that of ternary lithium batteries. 

Chinese automaker Wuling, a subsidiary of Shanghai Auto and General Motors, also told Xinhua that its future electric compact hatchbacks may be running on sodium-ion packs to further slash costs, boost safety and promote China’s indigenous technology.

Wuling Hongguang Mini, with a starting price tag of as low as 36,000 yuan (US$5,564), is China’s best-selling EV since the third quarter of 2020, outselling Tesla by 100,000 units in the first three months of the year. 

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