This is the first sodium-ion battery packaged in an industrial (18650) size. Rechargeable sodium-ion batteries have been on the horizon for decades and could become a cheaper, more accessible alternative to the lithium-ions that power electronics like cell phones, laptops, and electric cars.
Vincent Guilly/CEA
By Hilary Brueck
December 1, 2015

Care for a little salt with your rechargeable battery? Researchers in France have announced their first prototype for a compact sodium-ion battery.

Though scores of sodium-ion batteries have been in the works for decades, this model is the first to put a salty solution into a sleek, rechargeable format—but don’t go throwing your old lithium-ion batteries out the window just yet. Chemist Jean-Marie Tarascon, who helped developed the battery, says it will probably be about 5 to 10 years before this model is on the market.

Developed by a team of battery researchers based at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission, the new sodium-ion 168A is a standard rechargeable that’s a little larger than the household AA (168As are used in laptops, e-cigarettes, and electric cars such as Teslas). And while the battery might not be on par with the power of today’s lithium-ions, the prototype compares well with some of the very first Sony (SNE) lithium-ions of the early 1990s: With a decent energy density, it can hold upward of 2,000 charges and recharges before shirking on performance.

The thought is that these new sodium-ion batteries, with a little tweaking, might become a competitor in certain parts of the multibillion dollar lithium-ion battery market (forecast to grow to more than $33 billion by 2019). Sodium, readily available around the world, could provide a more abundant—and cheaper—alternative. While today’s cell phone and computer-powering Li-ions are made from more rare volcanic rocks and brine pool salts, sodium-ion batteries could be harvested from things like seawater.

Other researchers have suggested their own fixes for a potential upcoming lithium shortage like harvesting algae, but so far none have been able to get their tech into a compartment quite this small.

In order to really compete for a spot inside the consumer lithium-ion battery market, the new batteries will need to get faster and stronger. Just this November, Huawei unveiled its latest, fastest lithium-ion charging technology—boosting a phone up roughly 50 percent in just five minutes. If the French can get their model to compete, then they just may be worth their salt in the battery market.

 

Learn what goes into making a battery in this Fortune video:

 

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