Na-beta: Too many eggs in the lithium-ion basket
Confessions of a hybrid fanboy
Five years ago, I could taste, smell, and feel the hybrid revolution. Sure, hybrid cars weren’t yet cost-effective for most, but they were close, and I knew deep in my soul that once lithium-ion hit the scene, lithium and increased gasoline prices would set hybrids on a certain path to automotive domination – by 2010 I predicted back then – the revolution would be in full force.
I hit the head of the nail on higher gasoline prices. Lithium, however, didn’t live up to the hype I advocated, and according to numerous analysts, battery researchers and scientific studies, it could still be decades, if ever, before lithium dominates the automotive market.
And something like Na-beta batteries could squash the lithium revolution before it even gets going.
What is Na-beta? It’s a battery that has been researched for decades, but recently, according to GreenCarCongress, it has become a battery that has achieved some significant breakthroughs – not nearly enough to challenge lithium, but remarkable nonetheless. And if a few more breakthroughs could be achieved, it could challenge, even dominate, lithium.
Without any question, lithium-ion can power some truly remarkable vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, or even the Toyota Prius. Yes, believe it or not, I called the Volt remarkable, despite my constant criticism these days. But, the Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle is also a remarkable vehicle, but that doesn’t mean it can yet revolutionize the auto industry.
Nevertheless, the problem with lithium ultimately boils down to one simple problem: Regardless of how much scale and manufacturing improvements lower the price of lithium-ion technologies, basic commodity costs of lithium-ion technologies ensure that they will still be cost-ineffective compared to gasoline-powered technologies without much higher gas prices. Even then – with much higher gas prices that is – it would still be far easier and cost-effective to downsize vehicles and engines, etc. than to convert to lithium.
That’s not plug-in hating hype from a hybrid fanboy. That’s the story a significant amount of science is telling – a story I hate, by the way, but a story that has to be recognized and told.
Conversely, a battery like Na-beta is built upon far more abundant materials, or cheaper commodities, than lithium. Likewise, according GCC, Na-beta batteries are cheaper to manufacture than lithium.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Na-beta batteries will ever compete with lithium. They probably won’t. More breakthroughs are required. Eventually, however, some technology will compete with lithium, and such a technology might rewrite the book on hybrids and plug-in vehicles. In fact, maybe plugging in is already passe, as some new solar-powered, nano-fibered paint will provide more than enough energy for EVs on the fly – both storing and generating energy. Now that’s what I call dynamic charging.
Popping the bubble
Back during the Internet boom, I worked for an Internet startup rushing to be first into the market. Share, as much as quickly as possible, was all that mattered. Eventually, profits and business models would be figured out. The point was simply being first.
Then the bubble burst, and massive amounts of money were lost – as was my job.
In no way am I suggesting that lithium will be the same. Minimally, lithium is a great interim technology to explore the end of oil, but today’s lithium technologies cannot end oil dependence, at least not cost-effectively. New breakthroughs are desperately needed. Coincidentally and ironically, however, any of those new breakthroughs could rewrite the rules of the battery-powered game.
It might not be Na-beta, but to bet the farm on lithium is almost certainly putting too many eggs in one basket.