China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL) is the world’s uncontested leader in lithium-ion batteries, providing products to Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, and just about every important name in the electric vehicle (EV) space. But despite its market position, CATL is looking towards the future. The trillion dollar company just unveiled a new sodium-ion battery that is significantly cheaper than lithium-ion power packs, which may perhaps alleviate supply chain pressure and accelerate the transition of road transportation away from dirty fossil fuel-powered cars.
Lithium, the lightest metal and the least dense solid element in the periodic table, is phenomenally good for storing energy thanks to its high electrochemical potential. The combination of high reactivity, low mass, and seamless back and forth transfer of ions and electrons between positive and negative electrodes makes lithium-ion batteries amazing for powering electric vehicles.
However, lithium comes at a high cost, both financially and for the environment. Although the cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by 97 percent since they were first commercially introduced in 1991, mining lithium remains expensive and as demand increases as more and more auto companies transition towards EVs, demand is expected to skyrocket. From a supply chain standpoint, lithium is also relatively rare, being mined in a handful of countries such as Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina.