When it comes to batteries, lithium-ion reigns.

The high-energy density batteries—used for electronics, powering electric vehicles and energy storage—are smaller and lighter than some other battery types. However, its composition of critical materials, which includes lithium, cobalt and graphite, can be an invitation to potential supply chain disruptions and fluctuating costs.

Another battery chemistry—sodium-ion—is giving the energy industry something to think about. The sodium-ion battery does not rely on critical materials, and its main ingredient, sodium, is abundant, cheaper and safer, experts say. Though its heft may factor into its ability to dethrone lithium-ion batteries, at least for certain applications, efforts are underway to advance sodium-ion battery technology.

Targeting the critical and industrial power sectors, including oil and gas, California-based Natron Energy is carving out its place among sodium-ion and other battery startups. The company is backed by Chevron Corp., Nabors Industries Ltd. and United Airlines, among others.


Liberty Energy Invests in Battery Manufacturer Natron Energy

“We don’t have lithium. We don’t have copper. We don’t have nickel. We don’t have a lot of the materials that are going into electric vehicles,” Jack Pouchet, vice president of sales and marketing for Natron Energy, told Hart Energy. “And that means that as the electrical vehicle industry continues to take off, we aren’t supply constrained.”

In a report published earlier this year, Wood Mackenzie pointed out that although sodium-ion batteries lack the energy density of certain lithium batteries, sodium-ion batteries are safer, perform better and are expected to be at least 20% cheaper than lithium iron phosphate batteries because they don’t have lithium.

“The lower pack cost of a Na-ion battery will be a leading reason to substitute Na-ion batteries for Li-ion applications,” wrote Max Reid, principal analyst of Wood Mackenzie’s EVs and battery supply chain service. “Na-ion manufacturing uses the same processes used in Li-ion gigafactories, so production capacity could scale up quickly.”

Wood Mackenzie forecasts there will be about 40 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of base case sodium-ion cell production capacity by 2030 as cell producers step up commercial production. If the sector sees success by 2025, the firm forecasts another 100 GWh of production capacity is possible.

Leading the small pack of sodium-ion cell producers are China’s CATL and the U.K.’s Faradion.

Sodium ion batteries chemistries
(Source: Wood Mackenzie)

Something blue

What sets Natron’s sodium-ion batteries apart from others is Prussian blue—a compound dating back to the 18th century that was used to dye uniform coats for the Prussian army.

The compound—the same blue pigment used in paint, blue jeans and as an antidote for heavy-metal poisoning—enables electrodes to store the sodium ions in a unique structure that results in a faster charge, faster discharge and a longer cycle life, according to Natron.

Natron Energy Prussian blue
(Source: Natron Energy)

“Natron sodium ions are smaller than the Prussian Blue structures which hold them, making thermal runaway impossible,” the company said. Thermal runaway, a rapid rise in the battery cell temperature that leads to fires, is slower with sodium-ion than lithium-ion batteries.

“We shoot our batteries. We take high caliber rifles and we shoot holes in them. We take drills and we drill holes through them. We crush them. We light them on fire. Nothing happens,” Pouchet said. “These are some of the important things, especially as we look at industrial use cases, oil and gas, fracking.”

Any fine chemical manufacturer in the U.S. or elsewhere can make Prussian blue. The recipe isn’t difficult, Pouchet said. Such batteries are unencumbered by supply chain problems.

“We can source the vast majority of our materials right here in the U.S. to make the battery,” he said. The battery’s aluminum, plastic pouches and metal case are all materials that can be sourced in the U.S. “So, the supply chain is there.” However, moving up to gigascale status like some lithium-ion battery manufacturers will require scaling up production of Prussian blue.

Pouchet acknowledges the batteries are not ideal for all uses.

“We’re not putting our battery into automobiles. We’re putting our battery into stationary power applications, industrial applications,” he said. “We’re sticking them in the Niobrara Shale reserve.”

Sodium-ion batteries are larger than most, Pouchet said. From a physics viewpoint, lithium has a much smaller molecular structure than sodium.

“I can only put so many sodium ions in the same space,” he said.

The company is working to improve the rate at which energy flows in and out as well as making the battery more efficient, he said.

Potential applications

Wood Mackenzie sees the best opportunity for sodium-ion batteries in the energy storage system market and low-range vehicles.

Sodium ion battery applications
(Source: Wood Mackenzie)

Applications could also include EV fast charging infrastructure, among others.

In December 2023, EV charger company DG Matrix said it would integrate Natron’s sodium-ion batteries into its power systems.

United Airlines announced in late 2022 a strategic equity investment in Natron, saying sodium-ion batteries could help the airline electrify its ground equipment. Potential uses included charging electric ground equipment and future electric aircraft, managing electricity demand at airports and improving resiliency regarding inclement weather, the air carrier said.

Natron has been operating commercially in low volumes for about two years, according to Pouchet. The company is scaling up in an attempt to capture market share in the critical power space—data centers and telecom—as well as industrial power. The oil and gas sector is among its targeted markets, with the company targeting businesses looking to decarbonize or reduce emissions.

“How do we decarbonize the industry? Well, you go from running four diesel generators to three or two by putting a battery in to handle some of those dynamic loads that generators don’t do very well,” Pouchet said. “And there’s other use cases. When you’re out in the oil fields and you need to start fracking, you’re starting up 30 megawatts of generators every single day. What’s your supply source for that? Again, that’s a good use for batteries.”

Nabors Industries has been helpful in providing guidance on potential use cases, he added, including with Vast Renewables. The concentrated solar-thermal power company recently merged with Nabors Energy Transition Corp.


Nabors’ Vast New Energy Source

Natron plans to begin shipping batteries from its new Holland, Michigan, plant by the end of March, boosting its manufacturing capacity to up to 650 megawatts to 700 megawatts. The site is a former lithium-ion battery facility.