New battery tech could solve renewable energy issues

Many of today's everyday batteries are made of lithium, but this is a finite element. Researchers have now found a way of using sodium instead, which they believe will transform the battery industry.

Lithium mining in South America - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Lithium mining in South America – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The element is an important component in nearly all modern rechargeable batteries, like for example in electric cars.

But, the problem is that the world’s supply of it is limited, it’s costly and has a negative effect on the environment.

With the rise of the electric vehicle market, lithium needs to be replaced as it is not sustainable.

Sodium, is a cheap and abundant alternative to lithium. But global efforts to make Sodium-ion batteries viable have previously not been successful, as sodium-ions get ‘lost’ – the ions get stuck to a cell’s anode (negative electrode) – during battery charges and discharges.

Where is Lithium sourced?

Lithium can be extracted from lithium minerals that can be found in igneous rocks and from lithium chloride salts that can be found in brine pools.

The largest producer of lithium in the world is Chile, extracted from brine at the Atacama salt flat.

How do batteries work? 

The basic power unit inside a battery is called a cell, and it consists of three main parts. Two electrodes and an electrolyte in between them. These are usually packed inside an outer case.

The basic power unit inside a battery is called a cell - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The basic power unit inside a battery is called a cell – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

There are two electrical terminals, a plus (positive) and minus (negative), on the outside connected to the electrodes that are inside.

The difference between a battery and a cell is that a battery consists of two or more cells connected, so their power adds together.

A lithium-ion battery is a type of rechargeable battery, where lithium-ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode during discharge, producing the energy that powers the battery.

Now, Purdue University researchers have created a sodium powder
Now, Purdue University researchers have created a sodium powder.

Purdue University researchers have now created a sodium powder version that fixes this problem, enabling sodium batteries to charge properly.

To make the powder, the researchers used an ultrasound, to melt sodium chunks into a purple liquid.

The liquid then cooled into a powder, and was suspended in a hexane (an alkane of six carbon atoms) solution to evenly disperse the particles.

Even though sodium-ion batteries would be physically heavier than lithium-ion technology, researchers have been investigating sodium-ion batteries because they could store energy for large solar and wind power facilities at lower cost.

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