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CATL’s EV battery breakthrough holds promise as cost-effective, game-changing alternative the industry’s waiting for

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  • CATL makes rapid progress on sodium-ion batteries, improving the performance of the alternative technology to the mainstay lithium-ion batteries
  • The commercialisation of sodium-ion batteries is still some time away, as it will take time to fine-tune products that are a viable option to lithium-ion, say analysts

  • The first of a three-part series on battery packs looks at the world’s largest producer CATL and how it occupies the apex of a technological revolution to assemble cheaper and more durable cells to power electric cars.
    Ningde in southeastern China’s Fujian province, known primarily for its tea plantations, seldom rolls off the tongue in automotive circles or the technology industry.
    But on a rainy Friday in late May, the city of fewer than 3 million people was the epicentre of a major technological breakthrough, one that could shake up the world’s supply of battery packs, giving China the technological and competitive edge in providing cheap and durable power source for driving electric vehicles.
    Robin Zeng Yuqun, the founder and chairman of Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), revealed that the world’s largest producer of EV battery packs – with customers from BMWto Tesla – was making progress with sodium-ion batteries. Two months later, CATL unveiled its first generation of sodium-ion batteries, and came up with a solution to mix its mainstay lithium-ion packs with the alternative technology into new packs to optimise performance.
“Some people [said] it would be hard to make breakthroughs in the chemistry of batteries, and that improvements can only be made in their physical structures,” Zeng told 170 of CATL’s biggest shareholders, including China Merchants Bank and Hillhouse Capital, during the company’s annual general meeting. “By using a high-throughput calculation platform and simulation technology … [we] continuously evolved and enabled sodium-ion batteries to enter the fast track to industrialisation.”
Zeng’s announcement was music to the ears of not only CATL investors, whose value has topped 1.2 trillion yuan (US$189 billion) with a 41 per cent jump in its stock price this year, but also makers of EVs, or new-energy vehicles (NEVs) as they are called in China.
Most NEV batteries – from the ones assembled by CATL to packs produced by Panasonic and Samsung – rely on lithium and cobalt as the key raw material, both of which are concentrated in a small number of nations.
The world’s reserves of lithium stood at 21 million tonnes in 2020, of which 44 per cent was in Chile, 22 per cent in Australia, 9 per cent in Argentina and 7 per cent in China, according to the US Geological Survey. Australia, meanwhile, accounted for nearly half of the production, while China – the world’s largest NEV market – imported some 80 per cent of the industry’s needs.

Amid surging demand for battery packs, led by the popularity and surging production of EVs, the world’s supply of lithium is heading for a “serious supply deficit” by 2027, which could hamper the production of an estimated 3.3 million NEVs that year, according to a forecast by the energy research firm Rystad Energy.
Cobalt’s global reserves stand at 7.1 million tonnes, half of which was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also accounted for 68 per cent of worldwide output.
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Robin Zeng Yuqun, founder of Contemporary Amperex Technology, pictured in July 2018. Photo: dpa via Getty Images.
 

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