Significance of New Technological Breakthroughs for the Use of Salt in Making Electric Batteries
Information is coming to light about the significant role rock salt – like that mined in Windsor, Ontario, where workers are currently on strike – may play in the electrification of the automotive and other industries. A series of articles published by Workers’ Forum on May 10 discusses new developments in the use of sodium, extracted from the sodium chloride found in rock salt, and its significance in terms of the fight of workers in Canada and the U.S. to affirm their rights in the face of demands that Canada become a cheap and secure source for critical minerals for U.S. supply chains. We are providing excerpts of the articles below for your information and consideration.
In an article entitled: “Sodium-Ion Batteries vs Lithium-Ion Batteries” by Fernand Deschamps, we are informed that “Sodium-ion batteries (NIBs) are an emerging alternative to traditional lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) currently used in most electric vehicles (EVs).
Reports indicate they have the potential to be safer and more environmentally friendly as they do not contain toxic or flammable materials. While LIBs are known for their high energy density and relatively long lifespan, they have several drawbacks. This includes high cost, environmental concerns and limited availability of key materials such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese. In some NIB designs, copper as a current collector is replaced by aluminum, a cheaper and more abundant metal (see graphic).”
“An industrial process to extract the sodium metal from rock salt was invented in the 1920s. It is known as the Down’s process. The main part of that process is an electrolysis of molten salt that separates its two main ingredients: sodium and chlorine. A special apparatus called a Down’s cell is used and consists of a rectangular container of steel in which sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl) are separated from the fused salt through an electrochemical reaction at high temperature. This permits salt to be used as a source of sodium metal, in this case for the production of NIBs.”
The article goes on to state that “[o]ver the last few years, scientists at the Central South University in Changsa, China have been developing NIBs as an alternative to LIBs. Chinese battery maker Hina and Sehol – a joint venture brand of Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group Corp (JAC) and Volkswagen Anhui – have together built a test vehicle with NIBs, based on the latter’s Sehol E10X model. ‘The sodium-ion battery technology and performance could be used in mid-to large-sized EVs as it matures further,’ a Hina executive is quoted as saying.”
This is of note given a Volkswagen subsidiary recently announced it is building a battery assembly plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, almost equidistant from the Windsor Salt mine in Windsor, Ontario and the salt mine in the Goderich, Ontario; two significant sources of salt in Canada.
“According to JAC, its new EV is equipped with a 53.6 kilowatt hour (kWh) NIB pack that provides a range of up to 500 kilometres (km) on a single charge. The battery can be fast-charged to 80 per cent capacity in just one hour. JAC also highlighted that NIBs can operate under extreme weather conditions, from minus 40 degrees Celsius to plus 70 degrees Celsius. LIBs cannot do this, which is another one of their drawbacks.”
“The ability to use sodium from salt is significant given that one of the major issues in the transition to electric vehicles and electrification in general is the cost of batteries and their functioning in harsh environments. If the global auto monopolies, especially, can reduce the cost of the batteries using public subsidies and salt rather than lithium, as well as cut back their work force significantly because electric vehicles require far less parts, they stand to make more profit.”
“The world’s largest manufacturer of electric car batteries is Chinese manufacturer CATL. It will soon be opening a base for the production of NIBs called Cheliwan Production Base in Ningde, central China. CATL is also very much involved in manufacturing rechargeable batteries for mass power storage in China. At this time the company has developed technology to pair LIB packs with NIBs in what it calls its AB battery pack. This battery pack has the ability to support EV ranges of up to 500 kilometres, said Huang Qisen, vice president of CATL Research Institute, at a November 2022 forum. With its AB battery system CATL has achieved a mix of the two types of electric batteries, allowing them to complement each other and thus increase the energy density of the battery system. NIBs are less energy dense than LIBs which essentially means more mass is required to get the same energy capacity and this increases the weight and space requirements. By mixing the two types of batteries, CATL is able to get the benefits of each type in one pack.”
“In a May 4, 2022 press release, U.S.-based NIB designers Natron Energy and Clarios International, ‘a subsidiary of Brookfield Business Partners,’ announced that they are in a race to outdo Chinese giant manufacturer CATL. They are collaborating to set up what they called the ‘World’s First Mass Manufacturing of Sodium-Ion Batteries.’
“The Natron-Clarios NIB producing plant will be located at the Clarios Meadowbrook facility which already produces LIBs. The Natron-Clarios plant is in Holland, Michigan, U.S. Natron says that the similarity in manufacturing requirements allows the two companies to use part of Clarios’ lithium-ion facility for sodium-ion production. This is expected to result in lower costs and faster time to market compared to building a new factory. The project to retool the existing plant is being financed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) through the Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy Technologies With Untapped Potential Program (SCALEUP).”
Map showing location (highlighted in yellow) of Natron-Clarios sodium-ion battery plant in Holland, Michigan (left), the Ojibway salt mine in Windsor, Ontario (centre) and the Volkswagen battery plant in St.Thomas, Ontario (right).
Addressing the strategic sources of sodium in North America, Workers’ Forum points out that rock salt, also known as the mineral halite, and soda ash, known as the mineral trona, are the two main sources of sodium in North America and that the location of rock salt mines in Windsor-Detroit as well as Goderich, Ontario are strategic locations for access to salt for the new battery factory in Holland, Michigan as well as others such as in St. Thomas, Ontario.
“[T]he Windsor salt mine which is only 300 kilometres away from the Michigan battery plant and 180 kilometres from the St. Thomas Volkswagen battery plant,” it says. “The Goderich salt mine is also close, some 450 km from Holland and 132 km from St. Thomas, however Goderich does not have a deepwater port which makes transportation of rock salt by boat more difficult.”
“The entire Michigan-Ontario area is also serviced by major highways, railway lines and shipping lanes connecting St. Thomas and Holland to Windsor. The Windsor Salt mine in particular has a deep port capable of loading ships with 30,000 tons of rock salt which can be moved on Lake Huron to Lake Michigan to get to the Holland Michigan facility or St. Thomas facility that is being built, not to mention the new LG/Stellantis battery plant which is under construction in Windsor itself.”
Salt being removed from Windsor Salt by strikebreakers during salt workers’ fight to defend their rights.
Discussing how to view these developments and the new importance emerging for salt in the electrification of the automotive and other industries, Workers’ Forum points out that: “[t]he demand of the workers of Canada and the U.S. that electrification serve the people and the protection of the natural environment is the biggest factor for ensuring that the advances in technology which are taking place at this time are put at the disposal of humanizing both the natural and social environment. In this respect, the strike of Windsor Salt workers in Windsor, Ontario in defence of their union and its standards represents a line in the sand drawn by Canadian workers who say critical mineral resources should be extracted in a sustainable manner which upholds the health, safety and dignity of the workers and contributes to the well-being of the people and the environment.”
“The potential for salt to be used in the production of electric batteries rather than lithium which is much harder to mine is a positive development. The workers in both the U.S. and Canada will make a big contribution by arguing out how this resource can be developed and under whose control so that it can be put at the disposal of nation-building rather than destroying the standards workers have given rise to in the mining sector.”
In an editorial discussing the issue of the control over Canada’s natural resources like salt and the battle taking place at this time in Windsor, Ontario over the union-busting activities of the biggest owner of salt supplies in North America, the Workers’ Centre states “California-based Stone Canyon Industries Holdings Inc. (SCIH) became the biggest owner of salt capacity in North America after it bought Morton Salt, which owned Windsor Salt, in 2021 in part using investments from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. It has been engaged in restructuring its salt business by closing production in Alberta and attacking workers’ unions. Workers at its Ojibway mine and evaporation plant have been on strike since February 17 in defence of their demands against a company drive to increase contracting out to non-union labour.”
“Of note is that since Stone Canyon purchased both the Ojibway mine and evaporation facility, it has expanded their productive capacity by adding a new level to the mine and new brine wells for evaporated salt. The Windsor Salt facilities currently on strike in Windsor, Ontario sit almost halfway between the future Clarios Meadowbrook sodium-ion battery plant in Michigan and a soon to be built Volkswagen battery plant in St. Thomas, Ontario which is also being financed by the Canadian government.”
“This means that SCIH is now in control of a valuable source of Canadian salt, set to become even more valuable given its role in electrification. It adds a whole new dimension to company attempts to impose contracting out in the current contract the workers are trying to negotiate at Windsor Salt. Contracting jobs out to non-union labour will ipso facto weaken the workers’ defence organization, their union, and this will increase health and safety concerns, put downward pressure on union wages and be used to cause acrimony within the ranks of the work force.”
In conclusion, the editorial states: “[w]ith the support of governments at all levels and subsidies through pay-the-rich schemes said to be good for prosperity, stability and security, profits will increase. The expanded demand for salt and the expanded productive capacity at the Windsor Salt mine is crucial to the success of these schemes. Thus, the fight of workers to claim what is theirs by right and defend their union and right to negotiate a new collective agreement without having to deal with the company impunity is a fight which upholds the right of all workers and of Canada itself for a nation-building project which ensures that the value from this Canadian natural resource benefits Canada and is not ripped out of the country to pay dividends to SCIH’s owners.”