U.S. and European startups are racing to develop new batteries using two abundant, cheap materials — sodium and sulfur — that could reduce China's battery dominance, ease looming supply bottlenecks and lead to mass-market electric vehicles.
Today's EVs run on lithium ion batteries — mostly made with lithium, cobalt, manganese and high-grade nickel, whose prices have soared.
Western producers are struggling to catch up with their Asian rivals, and automakers expect supply bottlenecks to hit car production around the middle of the decade.
The EVs of the future — those arriving after 2025 — could shift to sodium ion or lithium sulfur battery cells that could be up to two-thirds cheaper than today's lithium ion cells.
But their promise hinges on potential breakthroughs in electrochemistry by such startups as Berlin-based Theion and UK-based Faradion, as well as Lyten in the United States.
Newer battery chemistries have problems to be overcome. Sodium ion batteries do not yet store enough energy, while sulfur cells tend to corrode quickly and do not last long.
Still, more than a dozen start-ups have attracted millions of dollars in investment, as well as government grants, to develop new kinds of batteries.
For now, China dominates battery production, including the mining and refining of raw materials.
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy, estimates China currently has 75 percent of the world's cobalt refining capacity and 59 percent of its lithium processing capacity.
"We are still dependent on a material supply chain from China," said James Quinn, chief executive of British sodium ion battery startup Faradion, which received more than $1 million in government grants from Innovate UK before it was bought by Indian conglomerate Reliance last year for $117 million. "If you look at the global geopolitical implications of that, it's a challenge for energy security, economic security and national security."
Asian battery giants are also working on new chemistries. China's CATL has said it plans to begin producing sodium ion cells in 2023. Korea's LG Energy Solution aims to start making lithium sulfur cells by 2025.