Electric planes could be the future of battery technology

RRichard Wang is trying to bring lighter and more powerful batteries to the world. The best way to do it, he says, is by electrifying the planes.

Wang is the founder and CEO of battery startup Cuberg, which is trying to use new and advanced chemical combinations to develop better batteries than the lithium-ion cells that serve as workhorses for laptops, cell phones and electric vehicles. . There are many companies trying to do something similar (QuantumScape and Sila Nanotechnologies, to name a couple), each with a different tone as to what chemical composition or material science breakthrough is going to deliver the products. And like other next-generation battery concepts, Cuberg’s cells will be more expensive than ordinary lithium-ion cells, at least initially. But where Wang differs is in his idea of ​​the best way to overcome that barrier and bring his technology to the mainstream. He wants to focus on an area that the electrification push has so far barely touched: flight.

Cuberg is betting on what are known as lithium metal batteries to get the job done. Instead of using graphite for the battery anode, as most conventional lithium-ion batteries do, Cuberg’s batteries use solid lithium, which Wang says results in much higher performance: 70% more of energy per unit weight and volume compared to the best lithium-ion batteries. batteries available today, which means that electric planes could go much further and be much more useful. However, Cuberg’s batteries will need a large amount of lithium, and to overcome growing competition for the metal, Wang says recycling will have to fill the gap as mining operations ramp up.

Richard Wang, founder and CEO of Cuberg (Christophe Testi)

Richard Wang, Founder and CEO of Cuberg

Christophe Testi

Wang began thinking about electric airplanes when he was starting his battery company in 2015. He was a Stanford PhD student studying materials science at the time, and there was no shortage of battery companies that launched based on academic research. . “Lots of battery startups came out of academia with great ideas and tons of funding, and they were all trying to get into the auto industry,” he says. That would make sense, he says, because with Tesla gaining steam and other auto companies seeing transitions away from internal combustion engines, automakers seemed to be the biggest potential customers for batteries. But Wang felt that this thought was wrong. “What you see is that invariably most of these startups have really struggled to thrive,” he says. “Even when they’re not bankrupt, they’ve been around 10, 15 years and still don’t have a commercial product in the auto industry.”

The problem, Wang says, is that the top priority for auto companies isn’t really putting the most advanced next-generation batteries in their vehicles, at least not any time soon. That’s because auto companies work on tight margins; they have to make sure that everything that goes into assembling a car is kept below a price point where people can actually buy it and where they can still make a profit.

However, aviation has always been different. Fuel is one of the biggest expenses for airlines. When cutting-edge advancements like weight-saving carbon fiber components emerge, they have historically been willing to pay a higher initial cost for aircraft if it helps them save money down the road. That means they tend to adopt new technology faster than auto companies. Wang is betting that the same paradigm will apply to his batteries.

The airline industry is in desperate need of decarbonisation solutions: aviation accounts for about 2% of all humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the moment, there are few easy options, and most potential carbon solutions, such as so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” made from biomass or captured CO2, will be difficult to implement at scale. Proposals to power planes with electricity are also in their infancy, and such planes would have limited range compared to planes powered by fossil fuels. Still, they have the potential to make a difference.

Cuberg has yet to confirm Wang’s thesis. The company, which was bought by battery maker Northvolt last March, has tested its batteries in small drones, with full-scale aircraft tests scheduled for 2024. Wang says they will likely begin. to appear on the commercial market around 2026. That, he says, could start to have a big impact on decarbonization. With current battery technology, the floating air taxis that technologists hope will soon become commonplace would likely only have a range of about 70 miles, while Cuberg representatives say their batteries would take the same plane about twice as long. far. A zero-emission electric plane could probably travel more than 300 miles, while the range of a hybrid electric plane would be even longer. All of that would help reduce emissions from US short-haul flights, according to Wang. And he says that such electric flights, which would have an emissions footprint similar to driving an electric car, could help fill other niches as well. “In a way, it’s more like the way you would think about high-speed rail,” says Wang. “But without the infrastructure needs.”

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write to Alejandro de la Garza to [email protected]

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