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Lithium-ion vs. Sodium-ion Batteries: Sustainable Energy Options for the Future

As the world moves towards a more sustainable future, renewable energy and energy storage technologies play an increasingly vital role. Among these technologies, lithium-ion batteries have dominated the modern-day energy storage landscape. However, a growing interest in alternative options, such as sodium-ion batteries, has emerged due to concerns about resource availability and environmental impact.

In this article, we will compare lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries, examining their resource requirements, costs, and environmental impacts from an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) perspective. Our goal is to understand which of these types of batteries holds more promise for long-term sustainability.

Lithium-ion Batteries: The Current Front Runner

Lithium-ion batteries have been at the forefront of energy storage systems for decades, powering everything from electric vehicles to grid-scale storage projects. The global lithium-ion battery market size was USD 45.70 Billion in 2022.

These batteries are typically comprised of a lithium-cobalt oxide cathode, a graphite anode, and an electrolyte solution typically containing lithium salts. Their widespread adoption is primarily due to their high energy density and long cycle life, making them suitable for various applications.

Image Credit: Esmito

The Dilemma of Lithium Supply

One of the critical challenges of lithium-ion batteries lies in the availability of lithium. The primary sources of lithium are somewhat scarce and located in a few regions globally, which can lead to supply chain constraints and geopolitical tensions. As demand for lithium continues to rise, there is a growing concern about resource depletion and price volatility, potentially impacting the overall cost of these batteries.

Environmental Impact of Lithium-ion Batteries

The environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries is a multi-faceted issue. The mining and extraction of lithium can lead to habitat disruption and water pollution in the affected regions. Additionally, improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries can cause environmental harm.  The liquid electrolyte containing lithium ions within these batteries is highly volatile and flammable, which creates a serious risk of fire or explosion, particularly when exposed to high temperatures.

Lithium-ion batteries are projected to produce 8 million tons of waste globally (as at September 2022). Currently, it’s estimated that only 5% of lithium-ion batteries worldwide are being recycled. Nevertheless, advancements in recycling technologies are addressing recycling challenges and reducing the environmental burden of lithium-ion battery waste.

Image Credit: Innovating Canada

ESG Advantages of Lithium-ion Batteries

Despite the resource concerns, lithium-ion batteries offer several ESG advantages. They have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. Moreover, the widespread adoption of lithium-ion batteries supports the growth of the clean energy sector, creating job opportunities and fostering economic development in regions where renewable energy projects are being implemented.

Sodium-ion Batteries: The Emerging Contender, or just another New Kid on the Block?

The market for sodium-ion batteries is only valued at USD 1.025 billion in 2021. They are, however, gaining prominence as a potential alternative to lithium-ion batteries, mainly due to the abundance of sodium resources and their potential lower cost. Similar to lithium-ion batteries, they consist of a sodium-containing cathode and an anode material, typically made from hard carbon. The main difference though, is that instead of lithium ion, ‘salt’ batteries use sodium ions to store and transport energy.

Image Credit: Innovenergy

Abundant & Cost Effective

Sodium, unlike lithium, is abundantly available in various regions around the world. Sodium is the 6th most abundant element in the earth’s crust. This widespread availability can mitigate resource constraints and provide a more stable supply chain. Sodium-ion batteries have the potential to be more cost-effective, as they use cheaper materials, including sodium-based cathodes and anodes, which can make them more economically viable in large-scale energy storage projects.

Sodium Batteries: The Way Forward?

From an ESG standpoint, sodium-ion batteries hold significant potential. Their abundant resource availability and lower cost may lead to a more sustainable and economically inclusive energy storage solution. Widespread adoption of sodium-ion batteries could also diversify the battery supply chain and reduce dependence on specific regions for resources, addressing social and geopolitical concerns. Sodium-ion batteries present a more environmentally friendly profile than their lithium-ion counterparts. The mining and processing of sodium resources are generally less ecologically disruptive compared to lithium extraction. Furthermore, as sodium-ion battery technology advances, potential environmental impacts from manufacturing and disposal could be further reduced.

Comparing Lithium-ion and Sodium-ion Batteries

While sodium is more abundant in nature compared to lithium, the larger size of sodium ions presents challenges in designing batteries that can efficiently accommodate them. Lithium batteries therefore is a preferred choice for applications demanding minimal size and weight.

Energy density, a critical factor in battery performance, differentiates the two types further. Lithium-ion batteries have a higher energy density, enabling them to store more energy in a given volume. Consequently, they excel in devices where maximizing energy storage within limited space is crucial, such as laptops and smartphones. Sodium-ion batteries may have lower energy density due to the inherent characteristics of sodium ions, limiting their modern-day applications.

Sodium-ion batteries cost significantly cheaper to produce. They are also safer, and do not explode or catch fire easily. They are also more environmentally friendly, and there is an opportunity for innovation and technological advancements. As scientists delve deeper into sodium-ion battery chemistry and engineering, there’s potential to overcome the current challenges and enhance their performance, making them even more competitive.

Sodium-ion batteries might find a valuable role in grid-level energy storage systems. Their larger size and potentially lower energy density compared to lithium-ion batteries could be advantageous in scenarios where space and weight are not major concerns. These batteries could help balance supply and demand in electricity grids by storing excess renewable energy during periods of low demand and releasing it during peak demand times.

Conclusion: Paving the Way for a Greener Future

Both lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries have their merits and challenges in terms of resource requirements, costs, and environmental impacts. From an ESG perspective, sodium-ion batteries hold a more promising future due to their abundance, lower cost, and reduced environmental impact. However, it’s essential to note that the energy storage landscape is continually evolving, and ongoing research and development may address the limitations of both battery technologies.

In conclusion, while lithium-ion batteries have been at the forefront of energy storage, sodium-ion batteries offer a compelling alternative that aligns better with long-term sustainability goals. Embracing sodium-ion battery technology could usher in a more resilient and equitable energy storage future, accelerating the transition towards a greener and more sustainable world.