CATL: sodium ion battery breakthrough?

CATL: sodium ion battery

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) is a Chinese battery manufacturer, HQ’ed in Fusian, founded in 2011, with >30,000 employees. It may produce as many as one-third of all the lithium ion batteries in the world. This data-file assesses whether it has made a breakthrough in sodium ion batteries.

Lithium shortages. Our review finds that CATL has been vocally warning of lithium shortages since 2016. Lithium demand rises 30x in the energy transition, per our own models here, while there are also challenges ahead for next-generation lithium extraction technologies.

However sodium comprises 2.7% of the Earth’s crust, versus Lithium’s 0.006%. In principle, sodium ion batteries can achieve comparable energy densities than lithium ion batteries, c80-90% round-trip efficiencies, similar temperature ranges and better safety. Hence in 2021, CATL announced it would be bringing a sodium-ion battery to market by 2023.

Technical challenges for sodium ion batteries are nicely illustrated in this data-file, which has simply reviewed a subset of CATL’s sodium ion battery patents. A core challenge recolves around innovating new anode and cathode materials that are adapted to sodium’s c30% wider diameter than lithium.

There are undoubtedly some exciting innovations in this patent library, especially around cathode materials. So can we de-risk the CATL sodium ion battery? If this was a standalone patent library, we might not be able to de-risk CATL’s 2023 target to produce sodium ion batteries at commercial scale.

Recent Commentary: please see our article here.

ESS: redox flow battery breakthrough?

ESS was established in 2011, incorporated in Oregon, and has c150 employees. The company went public in October-2021, via SPAC, raising $500M in new funds, valued at $1.1bn, and listing on NYSE.

It aims to be the leader in medium-duration energy storage (4-12 hours), with an iron flow battery costing 2-5c/kWh (assuming >daily cycling) and practically unlimited cycle life without degrading (>20,000 cycles). The first units have shipped and the company is now in the scale-up phase.

This is one of the highest-quality patent libraries that has crossed our screens, with excellent, specific and clear details; which have clearly locked up ESS’s implementation of an iron-based redox flow battery.

Five key challenges are identified in the file, along with helpful technical details of ESS’s innovations, all gleaned from reviewing its patents. In our view, the main bottleneck is round-trip efficiency, which may be dented by the electro-chemistry ESS uses to avoid side-reactions.

Sila: silicon anode battery breakthrough?

Sila Nanotechnologies was founded in Silicon Valley in 2011, to develop smaller and denser batteries, using silicon-comprising nano-particles in the battery anodes. Thus it claims to have made “the biggest battery breakthrough in 30-years”.

The technology is already starting to be used in wearable devices (e.g., the Whoop 4.0 fitness wearable) with 17% higher energy density and 33% smaller devices. A partnership with BMW was secured in 2018, and with Daimler in 2019, aiming to use silicon-anode technology in electric vehicles by 2025.

Overall, our patent review did support some further de-risking of silicon anode LIBs. We found several innovations that may hang together, although the specific breakthroughs, their intelligibility and the company’s overall focus are the biggest areas to explore further. Details in the data-file.

Cobalt: leading producers?

Our global decarbonization models effectively burn through the world’s entirely terrestrial cobalt resources (data file here), mostly in EV batteries, making it one of the most crucial materials for an energy transition (data file here).

Hence this data-file reviews c25 mines around the world, and the resultant positions of 25 global cobalt producers. In each case, we tabulate the mine’s output, ore grade, processing technique and ownership details.

Two-thirds of global supply currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a by-product of copper production, where the Katangan copper belt which has unique, stratiform sediment-hosted Copper-Cobalt ores.

The remainder is co-produced with nickel, in countries such as Australia, Canada, Cuba, Finland, Madagascar, Philippines, PNG, Russia, et al.

Full details are in the data-file, including our notes from an excellent, recent technical paper.

Stem: grid-scale battery breakthrough?

Stem Inc. went public via SPAC in April-2021, in a combination with Star Peak Energy Transition Corp, valued at $1.35bn.  Its offering is concentrated on software to manage and optimize grid-scale batteries, which can lower energy bills by 10-30% and uplift IRRs. Revenues are targeted to grow at a c50% CAGR.

Stem’s patents are visibly focused on software (>80%) rather than hardware (c20%). What surprised us about the patents is that they are mostly focused on smoothing short-term, second-by-second, minute-by-minute volatility caused by increasing renewables deployment (70%). Not moving excess renewable power over longer timeframes.

Stem scored well on our usual patent framework. We found the high-level problem statements and proposed solutions in its patents to be compelling and innovative. But it is also inherently harder to assess the fine details of optimization software with patent analysis.

Specific challenges, solutions and back-up is outlined in the data-file.

Enovix: battery breakthrough?

Enovix has developed a 3D silicon lithium-ion battery, which is 5-years ahead of the broader industry, with 2x higher energy density, around 900Wh/liter.

Specifically, silicon has up to 10x higher energy density than graphite as an anode material, but it is prone to swelling 300-400% when charging/discharging, and Enovix’s solution aims to overcome this issue.

The company went public via SPAC in February-2021, acquired by Rodgers Silicon Valley, with an implied post-deal valuation of $1.12bn.

This data-file assesses 10 Enovix patents from 2019-20, using our methodology for evaluating early-stage technology breakthroughs. Thus we have scored the specificity and intelligibility of Enovix’s core technology. Our conclusion are laid out in the data-file.

StoreDot: battery breakthrough?

StoreDot is developing “extreme fast-charging” batteries for electric vehicles, using a proprietary range of nanomaterial additives. It claims its prototype cells can charge 5-6x faster than conventional lithium ion.  The company is based in Israel, has raised over $130M, and secured backing from BP, Daimler and Samsung.

This data-file assesses 10 StoreDot patents from 2019-20, using our methodology for evaluating early-stage technology breakthroughs. Thus we have scored the specificity and intelligibility of StoreDot’s core technology. Our conclusion are laid out in the data-file.

Electric vehicles versus ICEs, hybrids and hydrogen?

This data-file tabulates the CO2 intensity of producing and charging lithium ion batteries for automotive use, split across 10 different components, informed by the technical literature. Producing the average EV battery emits 9T of CO2 (chart below).

Electric Vehicles should nevertheless have c50% lower emissions than gasoline vehicles over their entire useful lives, assuming equivalent mileages. Although we see gasoline vehicles’ fuel economies improving.

Manufacturing EVs has an energy deficit, which means the ascent of EVs could increase net fossil fuel demand all the way out to 2037 (note here).

This data-file can be used to calculate the crossover point, which comes after around 3.5 years and c50,000 miles (chart above). The numbers will vary as a function of grid composition, technical improvements and vehicle specifications.

Lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles: what challenges?

This data-file tabulates the greatest challenges for lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles, which have been cited in 2020’s patent literature. Specifically, the work contains a sample of 100 patents aiming to overcome these challenges, as filed by companies including Tesla, CATL, GM, GS Yuasa, LG, Nissan, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sumitomo, Toyota, et al.

Our notes and conclusions are spelled out in detail. We find the industry is clearly entering execution mode, and less focused on radical breakthroughs in energy density. CATL and Tesla’s pursuit of a “million mile battery” is substantiated, but includes trade-offs. The patent disclosures also suggest great difficulties in ever achieving a battery-powered semi-truck.

Battery Patents: Lithium Leaders and New Breakthroughs?

This data-file tabulates the number of patents filed into different types of batteries, by year and by geography. Hence, we have identified the patent leaders in lithium ion technology, based on 158,000 patents and the battery materials that they describe (above).

Continued cost-deflation in lithium ion is suggested by the 26,000 patents filed in 2019, which has doubled in the past 5-years (below), led by China (two-thirds of the patents). The data-file also shows a clear technology leader, while some companies are accelerating. Others are pulling back on R&D or over-concentrating on cobalt.

Competition is accelerating, making leading technologies important. We recently argued supercapacitors could be better suited for hybridizing industry and transport. Moreover, redox flow batteries are emerging as the most exciting new battery technology for grid storage, with patent activity doubling since 2014, to 894 in 2019 (also above). Hence we include notes on ESS Inc.

A description of each battery type is shown in the ‘battery types’ tab. Download the data-file for a break-out of the data by country.

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2022.