The process of creating new battery chemistries that work better than existing types is a slow and arduous one. Not only does it know more failures than successes, it’s rare that a once successful type gets completely phased out, which is why today we’re using lead-acid, NiMH, alkaline, lithium, zinc-air, lithium-ion and a host of other battery types alongside each other. For one of the up-and-coming types in the form of sodium (Na)-based batteries the same struggles are true as it attempts to hit the right balance between anode, cathode and electrolyte properties. A pragmatic solution here involves Prussian Blue for the cathode and hard carbon for the anode, as is the case with Swedish Northvolt’s newly announced sodium-ion battery (SIB) which is sampling next year.
The story of SIBs goes back well over a decade, with a recent review article by Poonam Yadav and colleagues in Oxford Open Materials Science providing a good overview of the many types of anodes, cathodes and electrolytes which have been attempted and the results. One of the issues that prevents an SIB from directly using the carbon-based anodes employed with today’s lithium-ion batteries (LIB) is its much larger ionic radius that prevents intercalation without altering the carbon material to accept Na+ ions.
This is essentially where the hard carbon (HC) anode used by a number of SIB-producing companies comes into play, which has a far looser structure that does accept these ions and thus can be used with SIBs. The remaining challenges lie then with the electrolyte – which is where an organic form is the most successful – and the material for the sodium-containing cathode.
Although oxide forms and even sodium vanadium fluorophosphate (NVPF) are also being used, Prussian Blue analogs (PBAs) are attractive for being very low-cost and effective as cathode material once processed. An efficient way to process PB into fully sodiated and reduced Prussian White was demonstrated a few years ago, followed by successive studies backing up this assessment.
Although SIBs are seeing limited commercial use at this point, signs are that if it can be commercialized for the consumer market, it would have similar capacity as current LIBs, albeit with the potential to be cheaper, more durable and easier to recycle.