By Putting a Sodium-Ion Battery in an EV for the First Time Ever, China and VW Score a Win

Sehol E10X 8 photos
Photo: Vision Effect on YouTube / autoevolution edit
Sehol E10XSehol E10XSehol E10XCATL sodium-ion batteryCATL sodium-ion batteryNatron Sodium-ion batteryLi-Ion batteries in electric vehicles will last a lot longer
A sodium-ion battery has been installed in an all-electric car for the first time and Volkswagen is involved. There are many yet-to-be-proven advantages for this type of chemistry and now someone will explore them in detail. Here’s why this should matter to everyone who eyes the idea of owning an EV and companies involved in the space.
Mining for minerals, aside from their increased acquisition cost, is one of the things EV critics usually point at when battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Multiple analyses confirmed that the carbon footprint of BEVs is higher initially. But as time goes by and the miles add up, gas- or diesel-powered cars keep polluting because burning fossil fuels results in harmful emissions. So, to decarbonize the transport sector, a zero-tailpipe emission powertrain is paramount.

However, after Tesla’s global success and the legacy players’ attempts at keeping up with the American EV maker, the race for securing critical minerals started. In no time, countries with powerful economies sensed that the future of their automotive industries was hanging in the balance. So everyone geared up and pressed the acceleration pedal. For example, the U.S. introduced the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the EU is silently banking on making fuel-cell vehicles a thing.

But China managed to get ahead of everyone in the BEV segment by becoming the world’s largest battery manufacturer – something we anticipated since 2010. This is impressive, but the Asian country outdid itself by putting the first sodium-ion battery in a car.

CATL sodium\-ion battery
Photo: CATL
We can't take a good look at this exciting energy storage unit and figure it out without noting that sodium is not the basic salt we all know and have at home. Even though both terms are often used as synonyms, in reality, they mean different things. Sodium is a mineral and it’s found in salt, while salt itself is sodium chloride (NaCl).

The secret is in the... Seasoning!

Progress in the battery sector is paramount for BEVs to become more affordable and lighter, which, in turn, can increase efficiency by lowering the Wh/mi energy consumption. Besides that, current lithium-based batteries are impacted by changes in temperature, and recent owner experiences showed winters can become a problem.

An idea that’s being pursued is the solid-state battery (SSB). These replace the liquid electrolyte that is sensitive to temperature changes and short circuits with a solid one that comes with none of these disadvantages and more energy density that theoretically could increase the range of EVs by three to four times.

But in 2021, China’s CATL (which also supplies Tesla) said it worked on a sodium-ion battery that showed a lot of promise. The company introduced a working version without putting into a real-life scenario and said the low energy density was one of the issues that needed solving before large-scale adoption could happen.

But the SSB is still far away from becoming real, while the sodium-ion (Na-ion) battery remained an optimistic probability – until now. Another company appears to have solved the issues and put the hopeful lithium-less energy storage unit in a car.

Natron Sodium\-ion battery
Photo: Natron
Lithium is a scarce resource and refining it takes a lot of water. More than half of it is located in South America. Sodium, however, is available almost everywhere in the world in large quantities and is mostly obtained through electrolysis. A direct electric current is passed through molten halite (more commonly known as table salt) and it generates a reaction that separates sodium from chloride.

The “salt-powered” Sehol E10X might just become the great equalizer

China’s HiNa might have pulled it off. It put a sodium-ion battery in a small BEV made by Sehol, a company owned by JAC and Volkswagen’s Chinese corporation. The very cheap E10X did not lose any battery capacity in the process since its cheapest version equipped with lithium-ion cells sported a 20-kWh pack and the Na-ion battery has 25 kWh of capacity.

The more permissive Chinese driving test cycle says the small four-door should be able to do 155 mi (250 km) on a full charge in city traffic. The best thing about it, however, is that it’s allegedly losing only 10% of its capacity at -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) and doesn’t need any kind of preconditioning to function normally.

The battery installed in the car has an energy density of 120 Wh/kg. To put this figure better into perspective, the first lithium iron phosphate (LFP) Tesla used in the Model 3 back in 2020 had an energy density of 125 Wh/kg. After three years, it increased to almost 300 Wh/kg, which indicates progress is possible.

Sehol E10X
Photo: Vision Effect on YouTube
Another great thing about this Na-ion battery is that HiNa – which has already inaugurated a 1-GWh battery production line – says it’s ready for mass production. If real-life testing goes well, we might soon see another type of battery that has the potential to be considerably cheaper being installed on BEVs. Furthermore, Na-ion batteries are capable of fast charging and the manufacturer says they can withstand around 3,000 cycles tops before losing too much range.

One thing that has not been specified yet, according to Golem, is the price of this energy storage unit. However, given that the Sehol E10X costs around $7,000 in China, we do not expect it to be more expensive than this.

The Chinese automaker partly owned by Volkswagen's venture in the Asian country says it will continue to explore the real-world usability of the sodium-ion battery and might continue launching other products like scooters with this type of energy storage unit. However, officials did not share too much of their enthusiasm, which hints that they might intend to remain cautious before claiming the Na-ion battery is the one thing that could make lithium mining irrelevant. At the same time, progress is good and testing is important, but we cannot allow ourselves to be overfilled with exuberance. Slow and steady wins the race, and both the EU and the U.S. seem to be just spectators – for now.

Finally, not only BEVs can benefit from this breakthrough. Na-ion batteries could revolutionize large energy storage solutions like Tesla’s Megapack by making them a lot cheaper. It’s the start of a beautiful thing for humanity’s ambition to become more sustainable without generating friction between powerful competing economies or destroying natural habitats.
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About the author: Florin Amariei
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Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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