How Elon Musk aims to revolutionise battery technology (2022)

By Justin Rowlatt
Chief environment correspondent

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How Elon Musk aims to revolutionise battery technology (1)Image source, Reuters

Elon Musk has perhaps the most exciting portfolio of businesses on the planet.

There's SpaceX with its mission to Mars, and Tesla with its super-fast hi-tech electric cars.

He claims his Hyperloop concept could revolutionise public transport. And even his Boring Company is kind of interesting - it aims to find new ways to dig tunnels.

So which one will end up changing the world most? It is my contention that it will be his battery business.

Doesn't sound that scintillating does it?

Image source, Getty Images

But the compact, lightweight lithium batteries that mean you can now stream movies on wafer-thin phones will soon be powering much more of your life.

You're probably already interested in the potential of electric cars.

But maybe you also have the usual concerns about actually buying one: the price, the range, and worries about where you are going to charge the thing and how long you'll be stuck there.

Yet the market certainly seems to reckon they are the future. Just look at the Tesla share price.

Last week it briefly nudged ahead of Toyota to become the world's most valuable car firm, even though the Japanese giant sold 30 times as many vehicles last year.

Image source, Getty Images

One reason is that Elon Musk has been teasing investors and rivals with the promise of "battery day" some time soon, at which he will announce a series of advancements in battery tech.

(Video) Why Tesla Switched To Tabless Batteries

World's biggest batteries

And cars are not the only vast new battery market.

You might have seen a story I wrote about how the world is slowly weaning itself off coal.

Well, gigantic batteries connected to our electricity grids are going to be central to the great renewable energy revolution too.

Image source, Getty Images

"We are entering into a nearly exponential growth phase", says Prof Paul Shearing. He's an expert on emerging battery technologies at University College London.

He expects electric vehicles alone to drive European battery demand up by a factor of 10 this decade.

But this explosion in demand will only be possible if we can make batteries cheaper, more durable and more efficient.

That is a big ask for any technology but fear not, Mr Musk's proposed "battery day" comes thanks to a whole cascade of breakthroughs.

Million mile battery

The first of these was announced just last week when the Chinese battery-maker that supplies most of the major car makers, including Tesla, revealed it had produced the first "million mile battery".

Image source, Getty Images

Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) says its new battery is capable of powering a vehicle for more than a million miles (1.2 million, to be precise - or 1.9 million km) over a 16-year lifespan.

Most car batteries offer warranties for 60,000-150,000 miles over a three to eight-year period.

This is a huge improvement in battery life, but will cost just 10% more than existing products, says CATL chair, Zeng Yuqun.

Having a battery you never need to change is obviously good news for the electric car industry. But longer-lasting batteries are also essential for what's known as "stationary" storage too.

These are the batteries we can attach to wind turbines or solar panels so renewable energy is available when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.

Fairly soon you might even want a stationary battery in your home to store cheap off-peak electricity, or to collect the power your own solar panels generate.

Image source, Getty Images

(Video) Elon Musk is serious about creating long-lasting nano-diamond batteries.

The cheaper option

The next barrier that is likely to be broken is price.

The landmark challenge in the electric vehicle industry is to get a battery costing under $100 (£78) per kilowatt hour.

"At that point you start to get electric vehicles that are cheaper than the equivalent internal combustion vehicles," says Seth Weintraub, a US battery technology journalist.

Once that happens the internal combustion engine will be effectively dead., he says, comparing it to how digital killed off film cameras a decade ago.

"In car dealerships we're going to go from one electric vehicle in the back lot somewhere, to one gas vehicle in the back lot somewhere."

So when will this crucial price-point be passed?

He believes it already has.

Mr Weintraub says his sources tell him these batteries are going into Teslas right now, and thinks this will be one of Mr Musk's "battery day" revelations.

Image source, Getty Images

Anxiety-free range

Cheaper batteries will address some of the other key concerns potential customers have.

That is because it will make it economical to put bigger batteries into cars.

That has two major advantages.

First, it means they can go much further on a single charge, so you'll soon be able to buy cars with ranges of 400-500 miles (640-800km) or more.

Second, big batteries charge faster for the bulk of their capacity, so you might be able to get up to 300 miles of range with just 10 minutes of charging.

That's comparable to the time it takes to fill a car with petrol or diesel.

So expect Elon Musk to announce upgrades for the Model S and X which will combine 400-500 mile range with supercar performance, says Mr Weintraub.

New factories

So, where are we going to make all these wonderful new batteries?

Again, we are expecting some major announcements from Mr Musk. Earlier this month his private jet reportedly landed at Luton airport.

(Video) BYD Blade Battery will DESTROY Tesla and ELON MUSK Agrees

Image source, Getty Images

The man, who actor Robert Downey Jr used as inspiration for Marvel's Tony Stark in the 2008 film Iron Man, is believed to have been flown by helicopter to a 650-acre site just outside Bristol.

The location is reckoned to be the prime UK candidate for one of Tesla's "Gigafactories", the huge battery plants it's pioneering.

And he is planning an even bigger factory in the US, probably in Austin, Texas.

According to Seth Weintraub this one will be a "Terafactory".

That's quite an upgrade.

Gigafactories were so called because they would produce batteries that could store billions of watt-hours of power.

By that reasoning a terafactory should be able to make batteries with a total capacity in the trillions of watt-hours.

And the logic of Mr Musk's ever-expanding factories remains the same. The bigger the scale, the easier it will be to deliver cost-slashing innovations, he believes.

Raw materials

So where are all the battery chemicals going to come from?

Image source, Getty Images

Tesla's Chinese partner CATL has found a way to make batteries free of cobalt, at least for shorter-range vehicles.

Cobalt is expensive and a lot is sourced from DR Congo, where it has been associated with child labour.

There are no plans to get rid of the key ingredient in lightweight batteries, lithium.

There are large supplies in salt deposits around the world, including the biggest single reserve - as yet unexploited - in the hauntingly beautiful Salar de Uyuni salt plain in the remote Bolivian Andes.

The problem is the current method of separating out the lithium in these deposits is slow and inefficient.

The biggest salt lake currently being mined is the Salar de Atacama in Chile. And at their significantly lower altitude, the Chileans can use natural evaporation to crystallise the salts, driven by the intense sunshine of the Atacama Desert.

Image source, Getty Images

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Despite these advantages, the process still takes months, and only recovers about 30% of the available lithium.

Which is where a wannabe Elon Musk-style tycoon with a similarly exotic name comes in.

Teague Egan is working with scientists on what he says is a "nanoparticle" filter that can separate lithium from other salts in solution, and will recover more like 90% of the lithium.

Instead of months, he reckons it could eventually take just a few days.

Mr Egan says his firm EnergyX is already talking to key players about applying the technology on a commercial scale.

If effective it could dramatically cut the cost of lithium - removing one of the biggest bottlenecks to the ramping up of battery production..

What this is really about

Which brings us back to my original premise - that batteries will be the most transformative part of Elon Musk's empire.

Image source, Getty Images

Mr Musk's ambition is to create the iPhone of cars - a must-buy product that revolutionises our driving experience, while also delivering him a big fat profit.

That's what will make us ditch our old diesel and petrol cars.

But there is also something much bigger at stake: climate change.

If cheaper, better batteries enable a rapid switch to electric vehicles, and give us renewable energy whatever the weather, then clearly they are going to be central to efforts to decarbonise our economy.

Astronauts blasting off into space are a lot more exciting than a grey box with a couple of wires attached.

But if that grey box helps us jettison fossil fuels, then the grey box wins in terms of its power to change our world.

Of course, you may disagree. And if you do, then please tell me why. @BBCJustinR

Around the BBC

FAQs

What technology does Tesla use for battery? ›

Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) battery cells will be used in all Tesla's single-motor rear-wheel-drive vehicles. In the US, this means only the base Model 3 uses LFP chemistry, though a new Model Y LFP variant may be on the way.

What battery is Elon Musk working on? ›

Tesla has been using LFP in some entry-level, U.S.-made versions of its Model 3 since last year, expanding their use of the technology beyond China, where about two years ago it started using LFP batteries made by Chinese firm CATL (300750.SZ), the world's largest EV battery maker, for some Model 3s.

Did Elon Musk invent a battery? ›

Elon Musk didn't invent the electric car. He didn't pioneer any next-gen battery technology. He didn't even create Tesla Motors.

Who is leading the world in battery technology? ›

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. easily maintained its pole position as the world's biggest maker of electric-car batteries as of the end of March with its share edging slighter higher to 35%, according to Seoul-based SNE Research's latest report.

Who is Tesla's new battery supplier? ›

Panasonic Energy Co, a major Tesla supplier, is working on new technology to increase battery energy density by a fifth by 2030, the Japanese company's chief technology officer told Reuters.

What company is making the new super battery? ›

QuantumScape has already shown successful test data for super small versions of its solid-state batteries. The company will continue to scale those tests to bigger and bigger batteries. Soon enough, the company will have solid-state batteries that work and are big enough to power an electric car.

Why is Tesla 4680 battery better? ›

The 4680 battery pack only needs 830 cells and Tesla has changed the design so that there are only two weld points per cell, slashing the welding to 1,660 points and leading to significant cost savings.

Who makes the 1.2 million mile battery? ›

Tesla's Chinese battery supplier, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., claims it's created a power pack that lasts for 2 million kilometers (1.24 million miles), Bloomberg reports.

Why is 4680 battery better? ›

The 4680 batteries have 5 times more energy with 6 times the power and enable a 16% range increase. At the battery-pack level, the form-factor improvements alone result in a 14% reduction in cost per kWh.

What does Elon Musk say about lithium batteries? ›

Elon Musk says there's big money to be made by turning raw lithium into battery chemicals, but shrinking profit margins suggest the mining end of the business might still be a better bet.

Who is the biggest EV battery manufacturers? ›

Chinese company CATL is the world's largest seller of batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles through the first half of 2022. Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd., better known as CATL, is poised to remain the largest global seller of batteries for electric and hybrid cars in 2022.

Where does Tesla get its batteries? ›

Tesla has released a list of direct battery material suppliers and confirmed that it has a long-term nickel deal with Vale, the world's largest nickel producer. There's currently a race to secure battery materials in order to support the rapid growth of the EV industry.

What battery technology will replace lithium? ›

Sila Nanotechnologies is replacing the graphite anode that forms a lot of the bulk and about 15% of the weight of today's lithium-ion batteries with a form of silicon that it claims will give battery cells a 20 to 40% increase in energy density while also charging faster.

What will replace lithium in EV batteries? ›

Are there any lithium battery alternatives?
  • Salt. Lithium's close chemical cousin, sodium, has been the basis for research into new batteries for years now. ...
  • Magnesium. Lithium and sodium are both good battery ingredients. ...
  • Seawater. ...
  • Glass batteries. ...
  • Fuel cells. ...
  • Liquid batteries.

What will replace lithium batteries? ›

These include better design to ensure longer-lasting batteries and a circular economy model to recover used material.
  • Aluminum. Aluminum is a readily available resource and one of the most recyclable materials. ...
  • Salt. Salt is very similar to lithium in terms of its chemical make-up. ...
  • Iron. ...
  • Silicon. ...
  • Magnesium. ...
  • Hemp.
16 May 2022

Who provides Tesla with lithium? ›

It's important to understand that there is not only one company that supplies lithium to Tesla. At the end of 2021, Tesla inked a fresh three year lithium supply deal with top lithium producer Ganfeng (OTC Pink:GNENF,SZSE:002460). The Chinese company will provide products to Tesla for three years starting from 2022.

Is Tesla using Chinese batteries? ›

Tesla secures battery material supply deals with two big Chinese companies. Tesla has secured battery material supply deals with two large Chinese companies, according to new fillings. The move aims to ensure battery supply to support its electric vehicle production through the mid-decade.

Does Panasonic make batteries for Tesla? ›

Panasonic reportedly building new factory in Kansas to produce batteries for Tesla and rest of EV industry.

What is the stock symbol for forever battery? ›

FREYR Battery Stock Quote (U.S.: NYSE) MarketWatch.
...
$ 13.90.
CloseChgChg %
$13.88-1.49-9.69%

What battery company did Bill Gates invest in? ›

Mangrove Lithium's pilot plant in Vancouver, Canada. Bill Gates' investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures recently invested $10 million in a seven-person start-up with no revenue and no customers, Mangrove Lithium.

What company is developing the Forever battery? ›

This is more than just “talk.” QuantumScape is backing it up with real-world data. In December 2020, the company released performance data for its forever battery technology. And it broadly underscored that these batteries are a complete game-changer.

Will 4680 battery increase range? ›

The larger 4680 battery cell brings a 16% increase in range over the 2170 cell, though Tesla believes that improvements in battery materials and vehicle design could result in a 56% increase in range.

Will 4680 batteries make Tesla cheaper? ›

According to news agency Reuters, sources within the US electric-car giant have said Tesla's next-generation '4680' lithium-ion battery for the Model Y could be produced for roughly half the cost of the SUV's current pack.

Will 4680 cells charge faster? ›

The newly built Model Y 4680 battery packs are seeing an impressive and positive (pun intended) charging speed. According to Twitter user The Kilowatts, they were able to charge their new Model Y from 0% to 97% in just 52 minutes.

What company is working on the million mile battery? ›

The battery research team around Jeff Dahn continues to work on the million-mile battery. As the Tesla battery researcher explained at an online conference, the actual goal is not to make an electric car drive 1.6 million kilometres with it but to be able to use the battery in V2G applications.

Who is developing the million mile battery? ›

A team of researchers, led by Professor Jeff Dahn at Dalhousie University, have developed and demonstrated batteries that can last four million miles (almost six million km).

What is the next generation of battery technology? ›

NEW GENERATION LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES

In this technology, the positive electrode acts as the initial lithium source and the negative electrode as the host for lithium.

Who invented 4680 battery? ›

Tesla 4680, a Lithium-ion battery cell developed by Tesla, Inc.

Does Tesla 4680 battery use lithium? ›

The 4680 is also an NCM lithium-ion battery. The only Tesla battery to utilize the LFP cathode type is prismatic. That said, Tesla has openly discussed their plan to focus more on the LFP type in the coming years.

Why is it called 4680 battery? ›

In September 2020, Tesla unveiled the significantly larger and more powerful battery cell called 4680. The designation traditionally refers to the dimensions at Tesla: The diameter of the round cell is 46 millimetres, and the cell is 80 millimetres long.

What country is rich in lithium? ›

With 8 million tons, Chile has the world's largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons). Within Europe, Portugal has smaller quantities of the valuable raw material.

What is the best lithium stock to invest in? ›

What Are the Best Lithium Stocks To Buy?
  • Albemarle.
  • Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile.
  • Lithium Americas.
  • Piedmont Lithium.
  • Ganfeng Lithium.
  • Livent.
14 Sept 2022

Does Tesla own lithium mines? ›

Last year, General Motors invested in a lithium extraction project in California, and BMW did the same in Argentina. Volkswagen signed a binding purchase agreement for lithium from a German mine. Tesla already owns the rights to a lithium claim deposit spread over 10,000 acres of Nevada.

Who is the largest lithium battery producer? ›

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, also known simply as CATL, is a Chinese battery company that manufactures lithium-ion EV batteries. Currently the biggest lithium-ion battery manufacturers on the planet, CATL is responsible for the creation of 96.7 gigawatt hours (GWh) of the planet's 296.8 GWh.

Which battery company is best for electric car? ›

5 Indian EV Battery Makers to Watch Out for
  • 5 Indian EV Battery Makers to Watch Out for. The EV battery race is on. ...
  • Amara Raja Batteries. Amara Raja Batteries is India's second-largest automotive batteries manufacturer. ...
  • Exide Industries. ...
  • Tata Group - Tata Power/Tata Chemicals. ...
  • Hero MotoCorp. ...
  • Maruti Suzuki.

Who is the biggest producer of lithium batteries? ›

The latest data from the US Geological Survey shows that the world's top lithium-producing countries are Australia, Chile and China, with production reaching 55,000 tonnes, 26,000 tonnes and 14,000 tonnes, respectively.

Is lithium mining bad for the environment? ›

Lithium mining destroys the soil structure and leads to unsustainable water table reduction. In the end, it depletes water resources, leaving the land too dry and exposing ecosystems to the risk of extinction.

How long will Tesla battery last? ›

Tesla car batteries are said to be designed to last 300,000-500,000 miles (as purported by Tesla CEO Elon Musk), or about 21-35 years, based on the average amount of miles driven by Americans in one year, which is typically around 14,263.

How many batteries are in a Tesla? ›

The most popular Tesla battery pack has nearly 7,104 18650 cells divided into 16 444 cell modules. The 18650 batteries can store around 85 kWh of energy. Recently, Tesla engineers reconfigured the battery structure of the pack to hold 516 cells in each module for a total of 8,256 cells.

What battery is better than lithium? ›

Batteries made from magnesium metal could have higher energy density, greater stability, and lower cost than today's lithium ion cells, say scientists in one study. Magnesium has another advantage too. Each magnesium atom releases two electrons during the battery discharge phase, compared to one electron for lithium.

Can EV batteries be made without lithium? ›

Researchers from the Tokyo University of Science have cracked the code of using plentiful magnesium instead of expensive lithium in the next generation of solid-state electric vehicle batteries.

Will the world run out of lithium? ›

Because lithium is not an infinite resource. In fact, according to Kipping, once EVs dominate the car market, there's about 70 years' worth of lithium until the identified global reserves are themselves depleted. After that, we'd have to turn to pulling lithium from the sea, which is a much more expensive proposition.

How much lithium is left in the world? ›

Global lithium reserves are estimated at over 14 million tons, and (depending on who you ask) the amount of lithium needed to meet current goals is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.3 million tons. In 2021 lithium extraction peaked at an industry record of 100,000 metric tons.

What is the future of lithium? ›

Despite expectations that lithium demand will rise from approximately 500,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2021 to some three million to four million metric tons in 2030, we believe that the lithium industry will be able to provide enough product to supply the burgeoning lithium-ion battery ...

What is graphene battery? ›

Graphene batteries are an emerging technology which allows for increased electrode density, faster cycle times, as well as possessing the ability to hold the charge longer thus improving the battery's lifespan. Graphite batteries are well-established and come in many forms.

What is the most powerful battery in the world? ›

The Saft Ni-Cd battery comprises 4 strings of 3,440 high- rate cells, each rated at 920Ah. Operating up to 5,230V on high-rate charge, not only is this the world's most powerful battery, it is also by far the world's highest voltage battery.

Will graphene replace lithium? ›

Graphene sodium-ion and graphene aluminum-ion batteries can potentially replace lithium-ion batteries as they are much cheaper and easier to recycle, and sodium and aluminum are more abundant in nature compared to lithium.

How abundant is lithium on earth? ›

Introduction. Lithium is present in the earth's crust at 0.002–0.006 wt%. It is the 33rd most abundant element in nature and is distributed widely in trace amounts in rocks, soils, and surface, ground, and sea waters.

Is lithium mining bad for the environment? ›

Lithium mining destroys the soil structure and leads to unsustainable water table reduction. In the end, it depletes water resources, leaving the land too dry and exposing ecosystems to the risk of extinction.

Where does Tesla get its lithium? ›

It's important to understand that there is not only one company that supplies lithium to Tesla. At the end of 2021, Tesla inked a fresh three year lithium supply deal with top lithium producer Ganfeng (OTC Pink:GNENF,SZSE:002460). The Chinese company will provide products to Tesla for three years starting from 2022.

Why is 4680 battery better? ›

The 4680 batteries have 5 times more energy with 6 times the power and enable a 16% range increase. At the battery-pack level, the form-factor improvements alone result in a 14% reduction in cost per kWh.

What is Tesla's 4680 battery? ›

The 4680 battery pack only needs 830 cells and Tesla has changed the design so that there are only two weld points per cell, slashing the welding to 1,660 points and leading to significant cost savings. Most of the advantages of the cell right now comes from the bigger cell format itself.

What will replace lithium batteries? ›

These include better design to ensure longer-lasting batteries and a circular economy model to recover used material.
  • Aluminum. Aluminum is a readily available resource and one of the most recyclable materials. ...
  • Salt. Salt is very similar to lithium in terms of its chemical make-up. ...
  • Iron. ...
  • Silicon. ...
  • Magnesium. ...
  • Hemp.
16 May 2022

Which country has the most lithium? ›

Where is lithium available from? With 8 million tons, Chile has the world's largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons).

Is lithium mining worse than fossil fuels? ›

“[It's] not like CO2 comes out of the lithium, but it does take energy to mine things — today many of those systems involve emitting CO2.” Lithium-ion battery mining and production were determined to be worse for the climate than the production of fossil fuel vehicle batteries in an article from The Wall Street Journal ...

Who is the largest lithium battery producer? ›

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, also known simply as CATL, is a Chinese battery company that manufactures lithium-ion EV batteries. Currently the biggest lithium-ion battery manufacturers on the planet, CATL is responsible for the creation of 96.7 gigawatt hours (GWh) of the planet's 296.8 GWh.

Who controls the world's lithium? ›

More than 80% of the world's raw lithium is mined in Australia, Chile, and China. And China controls more than half of the world's lithium processing and refining and has three-fourths of the lithium-ion battery megafactories in the world, according to the International Energy Agency.

Will 4680 battery increase range? ›

The larger 4680 battery cell brings a 16% increase in range over the 2170 cell, though Tesla believes that improvements in battery materials and vehicle design could result in a 56% increase in range.

Will 4680 cells charge faster? ›

The newly built Model Y 4680 battery packs are seeing an impressive and positive (pun intended) charging speed. According to Twitter user The Kilowatts, they were able to charge their new Model Y from 0% to 97% in just 52 minutes.

Who invented 4680 battery? ›

Tesla 4680, a Lithium-ion battery cell developed by Tesla, Inc.

Does the 4680 battery use lithium? ›

4680-type cylindrical lithium-ion battery (46 mm in diameter and 80 mm tall)

Why is it called 4680 battery? ›

In September 2020, Tesla unveiled the significantly larger and more powerful battery cell called 4680. The designation traditionally refers to the dimensions at Tesla: The diameter of the round cell is 46 millimetres, and the cell is 80 millimetres long.

How many 4680 cells are in a Tesla battery pack? ›

Under the foam, there are Tesla's 4680-type cylindrical battery cells, arranged in four sections, out of which only one has been revealed so far. Between the sections, there is some kind of a firewall.
...
Dry ice blaster helps to remove the pink polyurethane foam.
CategoryBattery Tech
Body StyleSUV/Crossover
2 more rows
28 Jul 2022

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