Northvolt’s Vision for a Greener Europe with Sodium Batteries

Northvolt’s Vision for a Greener Europe with Sodium Batteries

Northvolt’s sprawling battery research facility stands out as a modern cubic building of wood and steel between groves of birch trees and tall firs in eastern Sweden. The Swedish company’s labs form the largest campus for battery research in Europe. It’s here, in a former industrial zone on the outskirts of Västerås, about 100 kilometres northwest of Stockholm, that one of the continent’s best-funded climate tech companies could write the future of batteries.

In November 2023, Northvolt announced a significant development in battery technology. The company manufactured a revolutionary energy storage battery. They replaced critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite with sodium, iron, nitrogen, and carbon, making it more sustainable and cost-effective.

A New Era in Battery Technology

“This is a fundamentally new technology,” said Andreas Haas, head of Northvolt’s sodium-ion program. Northvolt’s sodium batteries do not rely on critical minerals. Concerns had grown over the social and environmental impacts of extracting and refining these minerals. Sodium, found abundantly in table salt, provides a more sustainable alternative.

Northvolt’s sodium-ion batteries offer a solution to the electric battery supply chain challenges. This is particularly important for Western countries seeking to reduce their dependence on China for clean technology. BloombergNEF’s 2023 analysis suggests sodium batteries could displace 272,000 tonnes of lithium demand by 2035, equivalent to about 7% of the overall market projected for that year.

Potential for a European Supply Chain

“The real value of sodium-ion batteries is the potential to build a European supply chain,” said Iola Hughes, a research manager at London-based consultancy Rho Motion. The European Investment Bank backed Northvolt with over $1 billion in financing in January, highlighting the company’s ability to create a fully integrated battery production facility outside Asia.

Northvolt’s sodium batteries are designed to store excess power generated by renewable energy such as wind and solar. The International Energy Agency states that global energy storage capacity needs to increase six times to achieve the goal of tripling global renewable capacity by 2030. Sodium batteries, which are around 30% cheaper to produce than lithium ones, could account for about 10% of the added capacity by 2030.

Sustainable and Local Sourcing

Northvolt‘s batteries can be produced with locally sourced materials more cheaply and sustainably than lithium batteries. The US holds 92% of the world’s sodium carbonate reserves. However, sodium is the sixth most common element on Earth and is widely available in Europe. This reduces dependence on US supply chains.

“Because we’re not tied to a geography, we will no longer have to rely on lithium from mines in China or South America. We can produce these batteries all over the world,” said Haas. Sodium-ion batteries also have better resistance to high temperatures than lithium batteries, which are inherently flammable.

Advantages for Developing Economies

Several Indian companies, including Reliance, are working on producing sodium batteries. These could become crucial to India’s transition from coal to renewable energy by making energy storage cheaper and more accessible. Northvolt will finalize its first sodium battery prototypes for energy storage later this year before developing a production line for manufacturing.

The Future of Sodium-Powered EVs

While sodium batteries store a lower amount of energy compared to lithium batteries, excitement around the technology is high. China leads in manufacturing clean energy technologies and sodium-based batteries are no exception. The country has nearly 30 Sodium-ion Battery manufacturing plants, with its first large-scale Sodium-ion Battery energy storage station operational from May.

Northvolt’s Sodium-ion Battery is the best performing battery of its type on the market with a capacity of 160 watt-hours per kilogramme (Wh/kg). More work is needed before it can power long-range EVs. However, Northvolt hopes to produce sodium-ion batteries with 180 Wh/kg capacity in the coming years.

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