Batteries of the future are being developed at Altris

Electrification is a decisive tool in the green transition. But in a future when more and more things are powered by electricity, the demand for batteries will be high. How can production rates meet this demand?

Two persons looking at an instrument

Electrification and battery use contribute to the phasing out fossil fuels and the phasing in renewable electricity production and storage in connections with solar and wind power. However, the need for batteries is rapidly increasing with the development of battery-powered products, such as electric vehicles and grid applications for energy storage. Currently there is only capacity to manufacture about 10 percent of the number of batteries that will need to be produced in a decade.

–  Replacing a dependence on oil with a dependence on mines that provide us with raw materials for batteries may not sound optimal. But the fact is that every battery, no matter how sustainably manufactured it is, is better than any combustion engine or fossil fuel vehicle, said Greger Ledung, an expert in battery research at the Swedish Energy Agency.

Altris expands the battery value chain

One of the Swedish Energy Agency's missions is to support actors that contribute to the energy transition, for example by driving battery development forward. One of the actors that has received support for several years is Altris, based in Uppsala, which develops sodium-ion batteries. They can be used for stationary storage of electricity from sources such as wind turbines and solar panels or connected to power grids and charging stations. Altris technology could relieve the need for lithium-ion batteries, which contain poorly accessible raw materials.

–  Sodium-ion batteries can be produced at a relatively low cost, and the raw material is free of expensive materials such as cobalt, nickel, and copper, which are used in lithium-ion batteries. Our battery cells are based on iron-, sodium-, and carbon from biowaste products, said Reza Younesi, associate professor at Uppsala University and one of the founders of Altris.

A person looking at an instrument

In Sweden, there are plenty of the raw materials needed to produce sodium-ion batteries, which is good from a sustainability perspective. At the same time, sodium-ion batteries contribute to alleviating the value chain of lithium-ion batteries. So, this is not a competitive situation between these two technologies, all batteries are needed.

–  As more battery types are introduced, the pressure on specific raw materials will decrease. Eventually, I believe it will lead to lower prices, said William Brant, associate professor in the structural chemistry group at Uppsala University and one of the founders of Altris.

Here's what the support has looked like

Altris started at Uppsala University in 2017. The Swedish Energy Agency financed the scale production facility where Altris verified its technology, which was an important step in their prototype development. Some of the other early research grants from the Swedish Energy Agency enabled Altris to hire its first employees. During the first two years, they worked in the university's premises, but quickly became too large. Since its inception, they have been able to hire more each year and the number of employees has doubled in recent years.

–  For several years, there were some fundamental problems with our own cathode material. Thanks to funding from the Swedish Energy Agency, we were able to solve these problems from the ground up. We were then able to train our employees and even file patents. We solved the problems three years before others even began to try, said William Brant.

Different types of support may be needed at different stages of a company's development. Therefore, long-term thinking is an important part of the Swedish Energy Agency's support system.

–  Support is usually given to help research projects answer various problem formulations and knowledge questions. It can range from basic research to large-scale demonstrations and pilot plants. But we also help companies reach out internationally and find customers, partners, and investors, said Greger Ledung.

When can new technology make a difference in society?

There is no doubt that Altris' sodium-ion batteries can play an important role in the transition. But first, they need to bring a product to market. And when it comes to batteries, it's a complicated process.

–  There's a big difference between batteries and other technologies. IT and programming companies, for example, come to the market quickly, which makes them more attractive to private investors and venture capitalists. But with batteries, it takes longer. That's why we're so grateful for the trust we've received from the Swedish Energy Agency, said Reza Younesi.

The Swedish Energy Agency provides support for new technologies to be developed, demonstrated, and established in the market. So, it's not just about the technology itself, there needs to be a clear idea of how it can reach society and make a difference.

–  Knowledge and research are one thing, but what's important is to have a societal impact. It's possible to be the first with something from a research perspective, but in order to meet the challenges we face, companies like Altris need to come to the market and expand, said Greger Ledung.

With their innovative technology model and high ambitions, Altris is at the forefront of the sodium-ion battery sector. The world situation means that the need for energy storage is increasing even faster than predicted, and Altris is well equipped to take on the challenge and accelerate electrification in Sweden, Europe and the rest of the world.