Electric planes could be the future of battery technology

RIchard Wang is trying to bring lighter and more powerful batteries to the world. The best way, he says, is to electrify airplanes.

Wang is the founder and CEO of battery startup Cuberg, which is trying to use new, advanced chemical combinations to develop better batteries than the lithium-ion cells that serve as the workhorses of laptops, cell phones and electric vehicles. There are many companies trying to do something similar — QuantumScape and Sila Nanotechnologies, to name a few — each with a different opinion on what chemistry or breakthrough in materials science will deliver the goods. And like other next-generation battery concepts, Cuberg’s cells will be more expensive than traditional lithium-ion cells, at least initially. But where Wang is different is his idea of ​​how best to break down that barrier and bring his technology into the mainstream. He wants to focus on an area that the push for electrification has barely touched on so far: flying.

Cuberg relies on so-called lithium-metal batteries. Rather than using graphite for the battery’s anode like most traditional lithium-ion batteries do, Cuberg’s batteries use solid lithium, which Wang says results in much higher performance: 70% more energy per weight- and Unit Volume vs Best Lithium Ion Battery Batteries are available today, which means electric aircraft could fly much farther and be far more useful. However, Cuberg’s batteries will require a lot of lithium, and to overcome rising competition for the metal, Wang says recycling will need 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 started thinking about electric aircraft when he founded his battery company in 2015. He was a Stanford graduate student studying materials science at the time, and there was no shortage of battery companies formed based on academic research. “A lot of battery startups came out of academia with great ideas and tons of funding, all trying to get into the automotive industry,” he says. That would make sense, he says, because as Tesla gains momentum and other automakers consider transitioning away from internal combustion engines, automakers appear to be the biggest potential customers for batteries. But Wang thought that thinking was flawed. “What you see is that most of these startups, without exception, really struggled to be successful,” he says. “Even if they’re not bankrupt, they’ve been around for like 10, 15 years and still don’t have a commercial product in the automotive space.”

The problem, Wang says, is that the top priority for auto companies isn’t actually putting the most advanced next-generation batteries in their vehicles — at least not in the short term. That’s because car companies operate on thin margins; You have to make sure everything that goes into assembling a car stays below a price that people can actually afford to buy and still make a profit at.

However, aviation has always been different. Fuel is one of the largest expenditures for airlines. If the most modern developments are in the pipeline, e.g. B. Carbon fiber components that save weight, they have historically been willing to pay higher upfront costs for aircraft if it will help them save money later. This means that they tend to jump on the new technology faster than car companies. Wang is betting that the same paradigm will apply to its batteries.

The aviation industry urgently needs decarbonization solutions – aviation is responsible for about 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions of humanity. For now, there are few easy options, and most potential CO2 fixes, such as so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” from biomass or captured CO2, will be difficult to scale up. Proposals to use electricity to power airplanes are also in their infancy, and such airplanes would have limited range compared to airplanes powered by fossil fuels. Nevertheless, 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 been testing its batteries in small drones, with full-scale aircraft testing planned for 2024. Wang says they are expected to hit the commercial market around 2026. That, he says, could have a big impact on decarbonization. With current battery technology, the hovering air taxis that technologists hope will soon become commonplace would likely only have a range of about 70 miles, while Cuberg officials say their batteries would get the same plane about twice that. A zero-emission electric plane could likely fly more than 300 miles, while the range of hybrid electric planes would be even greater. All of this would help reduce emissions from US short-haul flights, Wang said. And he says these electric flights — which would have a carbon footprint similar to driving an electric car — could also help fill other niches. “It’s in a way more analogous to the way you would think about bullet trains,” says Wang. “But without the necessary infrastructure.”

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write to Alejandro de la Garza at [email protected]


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