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Has China overcome electric cars' biggest challenge? Supplier's new battery type delivers quicker charging times - but less range

Chinese tech firm CATL has released its first generation sodium-ion battery.

Tesla and Elon Musk may have the electric blanket pulled out from underneath them after a breakthrough in battery technology was announced overnight by Chinese tech company CATL, which could see car makers give lithium-ion batteries the flick in favour of advanced sodium-ion ones.

Chinese research and development company Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) unveiled its first-generation sodium-ion battery on Thursday. The big news, according to CATL, is that it has overcome the drawbacks that have now stopped sodium battery technology being a viable source of power. 

Sodium-ion batteries work like their lithium-ion counterparts, with charged particles flowing between the cathode and anode. Until now sodium-ion batteries have been hampered by low energy density, which means how long they can last before recharging which affects the range an electric vehicle

There’s also been the problem of slow charging associated with sodium batteries. These are the main reasons why lithium-ion technology became the go-to battery instead of sodium ones.

Lithium-ion batteries have their own problems, such as the heat they generate and their vulnerability to cold weather. The mining process to source lithium is also expensive and relies on vast quantities of water to be used in the process. Sodium’s abundance in the Earth’s crust and easy extraction makes it an affordable alternative. 

Now CATL says it has solved the sodium-ion battery energy density and charging problems, too. 

“The energy density of CATL's sodium-ion battery cell can achieve up to 160Wh/kg, and the battery can charge in 15 minutes to 80 per cent SOC at room temperature,” the company said in a statement. 

“Moreover, in a low-temperature environment of -20°C, the sodium-ion battery has a capacity retention rate of more than 90 per cent, and its system integration efficiency can reach more than 80 per cent.” 

CATL was able to achieve this partly through changing the cathode material. 

“In terms of cathode materials, CATL has applied Prussian white material with a higher specific capacity and redesigned the bulk structure of the material by rearranging the electrons, which solved the worldwide problem of rapid capacity fading upon material cycling,” it said. 

“In terms of anode materials, CATL has developed a hard carbon material that features a unique porous structure, which enables the abundant storage and fast movement of sodium ions, and also an outstanding cycle performance.”

In what is now becoming a battery arms race, Tesla is powering away on the development of lithium-ion technology. The Model 3’s current lithium-ion batteries have an energy density of about 260Wh/kg.

While this is well above the 160Wh/kg of new sodium-ion battery, tech watchers know that CATL’s battery is only in its first generation. The rapid rate of development could see the energy density and charging times increase dramatically while keep costs low.

What will Elon do? Well, just last year he announced that the batteries Tesla is currently working on will be able to offer a 50 per cent more energy density by 2024.

The race is on.