How Elon Musk aims to revolutionise battery technology
Could the least exciting piece of Elon Musk's empire be the most transformative?
Elon Musk has perhaps the most exciting portfolio of companies on the planet.
There is SpaceX with its mission to Mars and Tesla with its super-fast, high-tech electric cars.
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He claims his Hyperloop concept could revolutionize public transportation. And even his Boring Company is somehow interesting - it aims to find new ways to dig tunnels.
Which will change the world the most? I claim that it will be his battery business.
Doesn't that sound so dazzling?
Mr. Musk says he will announce a number of advances in battery technology
But the compact, lightweight lithium batteries that you can now use to stream movies on wafer-thin phones will soon take a lot more lives.
Business Daily: Justin Rowlatt examines how batteries are evolving
You are probably already interested in the potential of electric cars.
But maybe you also have the usual concerns of actually buying one: the price, the range, and worries about where to load the thing and how long you're stuck there.
However, the market seems to believe that they are the future. Just look at the price of the Tesla share.
Last week it pushed ahead of Toyota to become the most valuable automotive company in the world, despite the Japanese giant selling 30 times as many vehicles last year.
This month, Tesla briefly overtook Toyota and became the most valuable automotive company in the world
One reason for this is that Elon Musk has shortly angered investors and competitors with the promise of a "battery day" on which he will announce a number of advances in battery technology.
The largest batteries in the world
And cars are not the only big market for new batteries.
Perhaps you saw a story I wrote about how the world is slowly weaning off coal.
Well, gigantic batteries connected to our power grids will also be central to the great revolution in renewable energy.
The Covid 19 crisis has seen the world's largest drop in coal consumption since World War II, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
"We are entering an almost exponential growth phase," says Prof. Paul Shearing. He is an expert in new battery technologies at University College London.
He assumes that electric vehicles alone will increase the demand for European batteries by a factor of 10 this decade.
However, this explosion of demand will only be possible if we can make batteries cheaper, more durable and more efficient.
It's a big challenge for any technology, but don't worry, Mr Musk's proposed "battery day" comes thanks to a whole cascade of breakthroughs.
The first of these was announced just last week when the Chinese battery maker supplying most major automakers, including Tesla, announced that it had made the first "million-mile battery".
Electric buses in China: sales of electric vehicles will only boom if batteries are cheaper, more durable and more efficient
According to contemporary Amperex technology (CATL), the new battery can drive a vehicle over a lifespan of 16 years with more than 1.2 million, more precisely 1.9 million km.
Most car batteries offer warranties of 60,000 to 150,000 miles over a three to eight year period.
This is a huge improvement in battery life, but it only costs 10% more than existing products, says the CATL chair Zeng Yuqun.
Having a battery that you never have to change is obviously good news for the electric car industry. Longer-lasting batteries are also essential for so-called "stationary" storage.
These are the batteries we can connect to wind turbines or solar panels so that renewable energy is available when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
Pretty soon, you might even want a stationary battery in your house to store cheap off-peak electricity or to collect the electricity that your own solar panels generate.
The batteries of this electric bus charging station in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, are powered by solar energy
The cheaper option
The next barrier that is likely to be broken is price.
The biggest challenge in the electric vehicle industry is to get a battery that costs less than $ 100 (GBP 78) per kilowatt hour.
"From this point on, you get electric vehicles that are cheaper than the corresponding vehicles with internal combustion," says Seth Weintraub, an American journalist for battery technology.
Once that happens, the internal combustion engine will be practically dead, he says, comparing it to how digital film cameras were killed a decade ago.
"In car dealerships, we'll go somewhere from an electric vehicle on the back lot to a gas vehicle on the back lot."
When will this crucial price point be exceeded?
He believes it already has.
Mr. Weintraub says his sources tell him that these batteries are being used in Teslas and believes that this will be one of Mr. Musk's "Battery Day" revelations.
A new Tesla factory in China: the challenge is to get a battery that costs less than $ 100 per kilowatt hour.
Cheaper batteries will address some of the other major problems that potential customers have.
This is because it is economical to install larger batteries in cars.
This has two main advantages.
First, it means they can go much further on a single charge, so you can soon buy cars with a range of 640-800 km (400-500 miles) or more.
Second, large batteries charge faster for most of their capacity, so you may reach a range of up to 300 miles with just 10 minutes of charging.
This is comparable to the time it takes to fill a car with petrol or diesel.
So expect Elon Musk to announce upgrades for the S and X models that combine a range of 400 to 500 miles with the performance of a super sports car, Weintraub says.
So where are we going to make all these wonderful new batteries?
Here too we expect some important announcements from Mr. Musk. His private jet is said to have landed at Luton airport earlier this month.
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It is believed that the man whom actor Robert Downey Jr. used as inspiration for Marvel's Tony Stark in the 2008 film Iron Man was flown by helicopter to a 650-acre site outside of Bristol.
The site is considered the UK's main candidate for one of Tesla's "gigafactories", the giant battery factories for which it pioneers.
And he's planning an even bigger factory in the United States, probably in Austin, Texas.
According to Seth Weintraub, this will be a "Terafactory".
It's quite an upgrade.
Gigafactories were so named because they would produce batteries that could store billions of watt-hours of electricity.
For this reason, a terafactory should be able to manufacture batteries with a total capacity of trillion watt-hours.
And the logic of Mr. Musk's ever-growing factories remains the same. The bigger the scale, the easier it will be to deliver cost-saving innovations, he believes.
So where do all battery chemicals come from?
Tech companies like Apple, Microsoft and Tesla are trying to find a way to access Congolese cobalt in a more humane and accountable manner
Tesla's Chinese partner CATL has found a way to make batteries cobalt-free, at least for vehicles with a shorter range.
Cobalt is expensive and is widely sourced from the DR Congo, where it has been linked to child labor.
There are no plans to get rid of the main ingredient in light batteries, lithium.
There are large reserves of salt around the world, including the largest unused reserve in the breathtakingly beautiful Salar de Uyuni salt flats in the remote Bolivian Andes.
The problem is that the current process for removing the lithium in these deposits is slow and inefficient.
The largest salt lake that is currently being mined is the Salar de Atacama in Chile. And at their significantly lower height, the Chileans can crystallize the salts through natural evaporation, driven by the intense sunshine of the Atacama Desert.
Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flat with an area of 10,000 km² holds 50-70% of the known global lithium reserves
Despite these advantages, the process takes months and only recovers about 30% of the available lithium.
This is where an Elon Musk-style wannabe tycoon comes in with a similarly exotic name.
Teague Egan is working with scientists on a "nanoparticle" filter that can separate lithium from other salts in solution and recover more than 90% of the lithium.
Instead of months, he says, it could only take a few days.
According to Egan, his company EnergyX is already talking to key players about using the technology on a commercial scale.
If it is effective, the cost of lithium could be drastically reduced, eliminating one of the biggest bottlenecks when starting battery production.
What is this really about?
That brings us back to my original premise - that batteries will be the most transformative part of Elon Musk's realm.
SpaceX's recent mission may have made headlines - but Elon Musk's battery developments may have a greater impact on all of us
Mr. Musk's goal is to develop the iPhone for cars - a must-have product that revolutionizes our driving experience while making a big profit.
That is what makes us get rid of our old diesel and gasoline cars.
But it's also about something much bigger: climate change.
If cheaper, better batteries make it quick to switch to electric vehicles and provide us with renewable energy whatever the weather, they will clearly be central to efforts to decarbonize our economy.
Astronauts who fly into space are much more exciting than a gray box with a few wires.
But if this gray box helps us throw away fossil fuels, then the gray box wins in terms of its power to change our world.
Of course, you cannot agree. And if so, please tell me why. @BBCJustinR
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