The year 2020 will be remembered for a long time and it’s not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic but also because of the numerous innovations, policy decisions and announcements made by various stakeholders of the global automotive industry. For India Auto Inc though, the new fiscal has started with numerous challenges — transition to BS VI, lockdown-induced loss of demand and Chinese import restrictions, among others.
For the nascent electric vehicle industry which has, for long, been reliant on imports of critical parts, as well as the lithium cells that are the key ingredients powering EVs, innovation is the only way ahead to empower the industry. EV OEMs the world over are engaged in extending vehicle range, lightweighting products, increasing localisation to reduce costs. They are also scouting for alternatives to lithium cells. Lithium-ion batteries are expensive to produce and lithium as a material per se is turning difficult to source, what with a few major global players and countries like China cornering supplies. So, what if there is a cheaper and abundantly available alternative?
Sodium-ion battery technology, which is claimed to hold as much energy as a lithium-ion battery, bears much potential to be cheaper and can be produced in substantial quantity too.
Now, a new-age start-up in India is betting big on sodium-ion battery technology, which is said to be a safer, energy efficient and cheaper alternative to lithium-ion cells. Tamil Nadu-based Sodion Energy is working on developing sodium-ion-based batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage needs. The company is the brainchild of evangelist Pachayappa Baladhandayuthapani (Bala), former CTO of Coimbatore-based Ampere Vehicles, which produces electric scooters, e-autos and golf karts.
What is the story behind the inception of Sodion Energy? Bala says, “I am a strong believer in electrification (beyond mobility as well), which is likely to transform the future towards greener and cleaner technology. I expect the electrification opportunity to last for the next three decades and wish to continuously be involved by contributing to and creating as many green technological solutions as possible. This belief and my entrepreneurial drive that has constantly kept me on the lookout for what I can develop next, which will have the most impact. Together with my friends and partners, we have zoomed in to the area of safe and low-cost energy storage technology. We analysed the current and upcoming technologies in this field and discovered that the sodium (Na+) ion Battery (NIB) can be a disruptor and a differentiator in the rapidly growing energy storage market, which led to the birth of Sodion Energy.”
Bala believes that while lithium-ion has been widely commercialised in the EV market, there will always be space for other battery technologies to co-exist. He says sodium-ion batteries are a safe, low-cost and moderate energy density battery which will be the optimal solution for a wide range of applications, especially for the low-end and low-capacity applications of less than 10kWh. “We are not looking to replace lithium batteries, but rather complement them in different applications.”
30 percent reduction in cost
When one looks at the various battery chemistries available in the market, the electric vehicle and energy storage markets have come a long way from lead-acid to LFP to li-ion batteries, so has the cost. But Sodion Energy plans to change that. “In practical terms, we are offering performance similar to lithium batteries, but at the price point and safety level of lead-acid batteries. The initial version of NIB, which we plan to launch in a few months, can be charged and discharged at 3C rating. This means the battery can be fully charged or discharged within 20 minutes, and we target to further improve the next version to 5C rating. Even then, due to the cost of electronics, we still recommend 1C or lower charging and 3C discharging profile for normal usage.”
Commenting on the investment made towards setting up the company, Bala says, “Sodion Energy is operating as a lean start-up, leveraging on technology partners in the early phase. In addition to a modest starting capital from the co-founders, we are in the process of fundraising in preparation of future growth. While we are not at liberty to reveal details of our technology partners due to confidentiality agreements, we can say that they have invested more than 12 years of research effort and millions of dollars to bring the technology to its current level. Our technology partners already have patents for their battery chemistry and production process. We will definitely market the cells and battery packs through distribution partners in the EV industry with whom we are in the final stages of talks. Our first batch of 100,000 cells have just got manufactured, and we are working on characterising and developing the packs and getting all necessary compliance certifications. We expect to launch our battery packs by the first quarter of CY2021.”
Sodium is one of the most abundantly available natural resources, particularly in sea water, which means that sodium-ion batteries can be produced in most parts of the world, at far less cost that lithium-ion batteries. The sodium battery chemistry is also free of cobalt and nickel. The chemistry allows for cells to be available in both aqueous and non-aqueous form. The energy density and lifecycle is very close to lithium cells, is almost 30 percent cheaper than LFP (battery chemistry) and has better thermal performance. Interestingly, Bala says the sodium-ion battery does not need high-performance BMS (battery management system), which also translates into cost saving and reduction in time to market. In terms of safety, the chemistry is said to have better safety, storage and transportation characteristics. It can be produced in cylindrical, pouch and prismatic format and is also easily recyclable.
Likely lithium-ion supply-demand problem
Global demand for EVs is billed to grow sharply. A recent Deloitte study has predicted that a third of all new cars sold globally will be electrified by the end of the decade, citing a radical shift in consumer sentiment. The firm estimates that 31.1 million electrified vehicles will be sold per year by 2030. The peak of petrol and diesel vehicle sales, it says, is likely to have occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although it expects the global car market not to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, electrified vehicle sales, it says, are predicted to reach 2.5 million in 2020. Applying a compound annual growth rate of 29 percent, this should increase to 11.2m in 2025 and 31.1m by 2030. By this point, pure-electric vehicles will account for some 81 percent of all new EVs sold. This would mean massive demand for lithium-ion batteries, which likely could result in a supply-demand issue.
Will sodium-ion replace lithium-ion? Not in the near future but the technology holds the promise to reducing the EV industry’s reliance on expensive and turning difficult-to-source lithium. While there are a few companies overseas like Faradion of the UK (see panel box) which are working on this new technology, Sodion Energy has outlined its plans. Given the rapid pace of development and progress in sodium-ion batteries, which would typically used in high-energy density applications like long-range EVs and electric commercial vehicles, could the industry be looking at gaining lithium-ion performance at lead-acid battery prices from sodium-ion? Watch this space.
(This feature was first published in August 15, 2020 issue)