Sodium Ion Batteries, Revisited

March 4, 2012

Back in December, 2009, I wrote about a new sodium-ion battery technology being developed by a start-up company, 44 Tech, founded by Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.   Compared to the lithium-ion batteries commonly used in everything from cell phones to electric vehicles, these new batteries have the advantage that their sodium-based chemistry uses cheaper materials and a non-toxic water-based electrolyte.

Technology Review is now reporting that the venture, now called Aquion Energy, has announced that it will open a new factory, at a site near Pittsburgh that formerly housed a Sony television factory.

The site for Aquion’s factory is a sprawling former Sony television factory near Pittsburgh. The initial production capacity will be “hundreds” of megawatt-hours of batteries per year—the company doesn’t want to be specific yet.

The initial target market for Aquion’s batteries will be in areas of the world where there is no existing electricity infrastructure.

The first applications are expected to be in countries like India, where hundreds of millions of people in communities outside major cities don’t have a connection to the electrical grid or any other reliable source of electricity.

Although people in these areas may get power from diesel generators, the rising price of fuel and the falling price of solar panels makes adding solar an attractive option, if there is a way to store the generated electricity.   Suitable battery systems could provide reliable power without the cost of building a grid, just as cell phones have made telephone service possible in places that have little or no wired telephone infrastructure.

Initially, Aquion expects its batteries to be very cost-competitive with lithium-ion technology, and  to be more attractive than lead-acid batteries because the sodium-ion cells can be recharged thousands of times, giving a significantly longer service life.

The company has said that it initially hopes to make batteries for under $300 per kilowatt-hour, far cheaper than conventional lithium-ion batteries. Lead-acid batteries can be cheaper than Aquion’s, but they last only two or three years. Aquion’s batteries, which can be recharged 5,000 times, could last for over a decade in situations in which they’re charged once a day.

The company hopes that, in time, the cost of its batteries will drop below $200 per kilowatt-hour, which it says would make them competitive for electricity storage for the US power grid.

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