Lithium has a chokehold on green tech, but new sodium batteries could change that

A blue Natron Energy sodium-ion battery on the left, a pile of salt on the right.

Green energy is in its heyday. 

Renewable energy sources now account for 22% of the nation’s electricity, and solar has skyrocketed eight times over in the last decade. This spring in California, wind, water, and solar power energy sources exceeded expectations, accounting for an average of 61.5 percent of the state's electricity demand across 52 days. 

But green energy has a lithium problem. Lithium batteries control more than 90%of the global grid battery storage market. 

That’s not just cell phones, laptops, electric toothbrushes, and tools. Scooters, e-bikes, hybrids, and electric vehicles all rely on rechargeable lithium batteries to get going. 

Fortunately, this past week, Natron Energy launched its first-ever commercial-scale production of sodium-ion batteries in the U.S. 

“Sodium-ion batteries offer a unique alternative to lithium-ion, with higher power, faster recharge, longer lifecycle and a completely safe and stable chemistry,” said Colin Wessells — Natron Founder and Co-CEO — at the kick-off event in Michigan. 

The new sodium-ion batteries charge and discharge at rates 10 times faster than lithium-ion, with an estimated lifespan of 50,000 cycles.

Wessells said that using sodium as a primary mineral alternative eliminates industry-wide issues of worker negligence, geopolitical disruption, and the “questionable environmental impacts” inextricably linked to lithium mining. 

“The electrification of our economy is dependent on the development and production of new, innovative energy storage solutions,” Wessells said. 

Why are sodium batteries a better alternative to lithium?

The birth and death cycle of lithium is shadowed in environmental destruction. The process of extracting lithium pollutes the water, air, and soil, and when it’s eventually discarded, the flammable batteries are prone to bursting into flames and burning out in landfills. 

There’s also a human cost. Lithium-ion materials like cobalt and nickel are not only harder to source and procure, but their supply chains are also overwhelmingly attributed to hazardous working conditions and child labor law violations. 

Sodium, on the other hand, is estimated to be 1,000 times more abundant in the earth’s crust than lithium. 

“Unlike lithium, sodium can be produced from an abundant material: salt,” engineer Casey Crownhart wrote ​​in the MIT Technology Review. “Because the raw ingredients are cheap and widely available, there’s potential for sodium-ion batteries to be significantly less expensive than their lithium-ion counterparts if more companies start making more of them.”

A blue electric vehicle being charged on the street.
Image via Ivan Radic / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

What will these batteries be used for?

Right now, Natron has its focus set on AI models and data storage centers, which consume hefty amounts of energy. In 2023, the MIT Technology Review reported that one AI model can emit more than 626,00 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

“We expect our battery solutions will be used to power the explosive growth in data centers used for Artificial Intelligence,” said Wendell Brooks, co-CEO of Natron. 

“With the start of commercial-scale production here in Michigan, we are well-positioned to capitalize on the growing demand for efficient, safe, and reliable battery energy storage.”

The fast-charging energy alternative also has limitless potential on a consumer level, and Natron is eying telecommunications and EV fast-charging once it begins servicing AI data storage centers in June. 

On a larger scale, sodium-ion batteries could radically change the manufacturing and production sectors — from housing energy to lower electricity costs in warehouses, to charging backup stations and powering electric vehicles, trucks, forklifts, and so on. 

“I founded Natron because we saw climate change as the defining problem of our time,” Wessells said. “We believe batteries have a role to play.”

Header photo of battery courtesy of Natron Energy

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