By Jack Pouchet
From the June 2023 Issue
The maturation of lithium-ion battery technology was a long-awaited improvement on lead-acid batteries that traditionally powered the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems in data centers. Lead-acid batteries are heavy, a ton are needed to get the job done, they have a short life, and they can fail without warning. Lithium-ion batteries were an improvement, but they present two major risks: they are highly flammable and they rely on conflict materials at odds with sustainability programs.
For data centers relying on lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries, ensuring constant uptime can compete with decarbonization goals. Our modern moment demands a battery technology that doesn’t force a choice between these two priorities.
Sodium-ion batteries may be a newer technology, but the technology is tried and tested and ready to transform data center power management.
Sodium-ion batteries are quickly emerging as a solution that provides the reliable, sophisticated backup power data centers need and the decarbonization assistance they want.
What Are Sodium-Ion Batteries?
As the name suggests, these batteries rely on sodium ions as the battery electrolyte instead of lithium, lead, or other minerals. There is no sodium metal present under any conditions, making them inherently safe. Naturally abundant salt is chemically modified to optimize its performance in a battery. Numerous electrode chemistries have been developed, but perhaps the safest and most powerful to date uses Prussian blue, with extremely porous particles that soak up ions in the same way that a sponge’s pores soak up water. This means energy can be stored—and released—quickly again and again without breaking down. This fast-recharge/fast-discharge design makes these batteries ideal for UPS systems, which must be ready to take on a data center’s entire power load at a moment’s notice during a main power failure.
The Sodium-Ion Difference For Data Centers
Data centers have a core directive, which can vary based on whom you ask. “Constant uptime at any cost,” if you ask the IT staff. “Efficient operation,” if you ask facilities staff. Sodium-ion battery technology can meet the high expectations of both parties for a safe, efficient, reliable UPS.
Power And Peak Shaving
Sodium-ion batteries perform substantially better than many competing battery technologies. This performance includes:
- Power-per-energy: Sodium-ion batteries have up to four times as much power-per-energy than lithium-ion and more than seven times more than lead-acid batteries. They can also deploy 100% of their energy load immediately with no thermal runaway.
- Faster recharge: Sodium-ion batteries recharge in a quarter of the time of lithium-ion and 1/32 of the time of lead-acid batteries. This substantially lowers recharging energy costs and improves overall data center availability. Further, standby generators can be shut down many hours earlier further reducing operating expenses and CO2 emissions.
- Longer service life: Sodium-ion batteries can deliver up to 50,000 deep discharge cycles during their service life, which is five times that of lithium-ion and 50 times that of lead-acid. This means fewer replacements and associated costs.
The power capabilities of sodium-ion technology also support peak shaving. Sodium-ion batteries are not, at this time, designed as an alternative to a generator—that is, to support an entire data center load for an extended period. However, their immediate discharge and fast recharge would support the load transfer between the main power grid and the owned energy source during peak usage times. Because sodium-ion batteries recharge so quickly, they can also handle back-to-back power events better than lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries with reduced downtime.
Sodium-ion batteries can operate safely and reliably in a wide range of temperatures and require no additional temperature control.
Reduces Risk Of Fire
Sodium-ion battery technology is safe, non-hazardous, and nonflammable. Lithium-ion batteries have been part of several notable data center fires recently. By contrast, sodium-ion batteries can operate safely and reliably in a wide range of temperatures and require no additional temperature control. And, in UL 9450A testing, they couldn’t be induced to thermal runaway, even when pierced with a bullet. If a fire should break out in your data center, a sodium-ion battery will not worsen it.
Environmental And Social Governance
As environmental and social governance (ESG) initiatives grow in importance, sodium-ion batteries have emerged as a more sustainable, ethical alternative to competing technologies.
Lithium is only available in certain parts of the world. It is a finite resource that is too often mined in unsafe working conditions. By contrast, sodium is plentiful around the world, and the mined minerals in some sodium-ion batteries are the byproducts of other industrial processes.
Sodium-ion can reduce the carbon footprint associated with battery transportation. Because they are nonflammable, sodium-ion batteries can be shipped fully charged. Due to their long service life, fewer sodium-ion batteries will need to be delivered. These both reduce transportation costs and emissions.
This battery technology also can help data centers meet more immediate decarbonization goals. Sodium-ion batteries enable generator load management, delayed start-up, and power/fuel burn optimization through frequent battery cycling, fast recharge, and more. They also can help extend generator life by reducing the “just in case” time generators are left running to catch the load during a subsequent power event while UPS batteries recharge.
A Safer Choice For Data Centers
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Data centers no longer can choose between uptime and efficient energy management. Lithium-ion batteries mitigate some of the problems of lead-acid but carry substantial fire and safety risks. Sodium-ion battery technology is here and already at work in some UPS systems, providing reliable, safe, ESG-focused backup power for data centers. The virtues of some new technologies are wisely taken “with a grain of salt”—but in this case, salt is a breakthrough solution. Sodium-ion batteries may be a newer technology, but the technology is tried and tested and ready to transform data center power management.
Pouchet is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Natron Energy. Pouchet works closely with major OEMs, large Telecom and data center owners and operators, BESS/ESS integrators, industrial power users driving toward decarbonization, and leading mission-critical engineering firms to help define, architect, and create opportunities for advanced battery and power technologies that improve day-to-day business and operational efficiencies.
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