Sodium Ion Batteries: Implications for Transport
Earlier this year, IATA previewed some new UN numbers, set to be introduced in all the modal regulations from 2025.
The most notable introduction this time around will be the addition of UN numbers for Sodium ion batteries (UN3551), Sodium ion batteries contained in / packed with equipment (UN3552) and Vehicle, sodium ion battery powered (UN3558).
In recent years, lithium batteries have contributed to some of the fastest changes we’ve seen in regulations, and also created a whole number of complexities. It is for this reason around ten years ago we developed a specialist Carriage of Lithium Batteries by Air, Road & Sea training course. So, the obvious question is are we going to see the same disruption with the growth in use of sodium ion batteries?
Like many of the big questions on the future of dangerous goods – the answer is yes and no. While the technology has been available for many years, sodium batteries use in modern technology is still in early development. To truly understand what the impact of this new technology might be on transport, we need to know more about sodium battery properties and some of the core differences with lithium batteries. Here are three key things worth knowing about sodium batteries and their use:
Sodium batteries are less likely to pose some of the safety risks we see with traditional lithium ion batteries. One of the primary concerns with lithium ion batteries is their potential for thermal runaway, which can lead to massive heat in a short time, fires and explosions. Sodium ion batteries, on the other hand, have a lower risk of thermal runaway because sodium is less reactive with air and moisture. Unlike lithium ion batteries which must be transported on their own with a maximum 30% state of charge by air, manufacturers claim sodium ion batteries can be safely transported at a 0% charge.
Sodium ion batteries are considered to be more cost-effective than lithium ion batteries due to the lower cost of sodium as a raw material. Since they are less dense than lithium batteries, they would need to be larger to deliver the same power. This cost advantage can make sodium ion batteries an attractive choice for applications that prioritise affordability. The higher abundance and ease of mining sodium also brings environmental benefits as extraction and processing is less energy intensive than lithium mining.
Due to the lower density of sodium ion batteries vs. lithium ion, they lend themselves to uses where batteries can be stationary, such as energy storage systems. Chevron, for example, has started using sodium batteries at electric car charging sites where having multiple vehicles connected at one time would normally be too much for an energy grid. Using batteries to provide the power to the charging station can deliver a consistent power supply at times of high demand.
The introduction of UN numbers for Sodium ion batteries in the 2024 modal regulations reflects the growing interest and potential of this technology. While sodium ion batteries are still in the early stages of development for various applications, from a transport perspective we would expect their movement to be a little easier than that of lithium batteries.
Coming back to the original question around disruption and changes to the regulations, we’d expect to see changes to the regulations, but practically with the right training in place, sodium batteries are unlikely to pose the same complexities to logistics operations we’ve seen over the years with lithium batteries. Those already familiar with lithium battery transport regulations will be at an advantage in terms of applying existing knowledge. However, all dangerous goods professionals would do well to stay informed about the evolving regulations and emerging technologies in this field to ensure the safe and efficient transport of these innovative power sources.