Wondering if Tesla is making a graphene battery? The short answer is “not yet.” But there’s more to the story than that.
The worldwide popularity of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) offerings such as the Model 3 sedan has been good news for important battery metals such as lithium, graphite and cobalt, which are used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
The Model 3 in particular appeals to consumers — with its US$40,000 price tag, Tesla believes it will help make EVs available to the masses. According to Statista, it's the world’s best-selling plug-in EV model, with global unit sales of more than 500,000 in 2020.
Because Tesla’s EVs run on lithium-ion batteries, demand for lithium, along with graphite and cobalt, is expected to increase as Tesla sells more of its cars. But some investors are wondering whether Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries may eventually include another interesting material: A single-layer crystalline allotrope of carbon known as graphene.
Why the speculation about graphene batteries from Tesla? Read on to find out.
What's the difference between current lithium-ion batteries and batteries that use graphene?
Seen as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, graphene has an impressive list of characteristics: It conducts electricity better than copper, and is impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel (but six times lighter) and almost transparent. Further, its properties can be altered when chemical components are added to its surface.
Those qualities give graphene seemingly endless applications, though most still aren’t commercially available. Lithium-ion batteries are just one of many areas where experts see major potential for graphene technology.
For example, graphene's high electrical conductivity can increase energy density and accelerate chemical reactions within lithium-ion batteries. This in turn provides greater power transfer and faster charge speeds with less heat. Aside from that, graphene's mechanical properties can add stability for electrode materials.
Is Tesla researching graphene?
So could graphene really be used to make better lithium-ion batteries? And if so, is that something Tesla is pursuing? The short answer is “not yet,” but there’s more to the story than that.
Here’s a brief overview of what you should know about Tesla and graphene:
- 500 mile graphene battery: China’s Xinhua News Agency is largely responsible for rumors that Tesla may be making a graphene battery. Why? All the way back in 2014, the news outlet published an article stating that Tesla was working on a graphene battery that could nearly double the range of the Model S car to 500 miles.
- Tesla CEO Elon Musk chimes in: Xinhua’s story was given credence because around the same time it came out, Musk said that he thought it would be possible to create an EV with a range of 500 miles. “In fact we could do it quite soon, but it would increase the price,” he said. However, he didn’t specify that graphene would be used to create such a vehicle.
- Market watchers pile on: Together, the article and comment from Musk understandably created an uproar in the graphene community — click here or here to get a sense of some of the commentary on the topic. Notably, market watchers pointed out that, while a graphene battery might be great for mileage, the cost of graphene could make it prohibitively expensive.
- Excitement subsides: With no new reports on Tesla’s graphene plans, excitement about the 500 mile battery faded. Sources show that Tesla batteries, produced by Panasonic (OTC Pink:PCRFF,TSE:6752), have a maximum 330 mile range among the company’s top-line models.
- Interest returns again: In mid-2019, Tesla acquired Maxwell Technologies. Notably, Maxwell offers fast-charging capabilities through its supercapacitors. Graphene supercapacitors have the ability to store incredible amounts of energy compared to regular capacitors.
That’s where the situation stands today. While a graphene battery from Tesla is certainly a compelling idea, as of yet there’s been no confirmation that the company actually has one in the works.
Why is Tesla not making graphene battery vehicles?
Unsurprisingly, there are hurdles to commercializing the use of graphite materials in batteries, and these may be deterring Tesla. For one, there are density challenges that impact the safety and strength of lithium batteries in EVs. Issues surrounding conductivity, which can ultimately degrade the overall battery capacity, still remain as well.
That said, there are other companies interested in the idea of graphene batteries that might someday power EVs.
Nanotech Energy is developing graphene-enhanced batteries for portable electronics and EVs. Taiwan-based financial services business Fubon Financial Holding recently made a US$64 million investment in the company.
In early 2020, Spain-based Graphenano reported that together with a Chinese partner it is developing a graphene polymer-based battery that would allow for a range of up to 500 kilometers and a recharge time of under five minutes.
There’s also a Spanish startup called Earthdas that has made a graphene battery that charges electric motorcycles and bikes in only five minutes. It may only be a matter of time before it can be used for other vehicles.
Also in 2020, Chinese EV maker GAC Group (HKEX:2238) announced the development of a graphene-enhanced battery that can be charged up to 80 percent in eight minutes. In the fall of 2021, GAC launched a version of its Aion V Plus car with this fast-charging technology. The catch? These vehicles require special chargers, and they aren't yet abundant.
Aside from that, Australia-based Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG) (TSXV:GMG,OTC Pink:GMGMF) claims to have developed graphene aluminum-ion battery cells that can reportedly charge up to 70 times faster than conventional lithium-ion cells while holding up to three times the energy as conventional aluminum-based cells. According to the company, its graphene aluminum-ion cell was recently cycled 2,000 times with no performance losses.
GMG Managing Director Craig Nicol has said the company’s cell technology could be made to fit inside vehicles' current lithium-ion housings. “Ours will be the same shape and voltage as the current lithium-ion cells, or we can move to whatever shape is necessary,” he said. GMG has continued to advance its work in 2022.
Overall, it appears that Tesla is not the final answer on the graphene battery. But graphene is considered the “wonder material” of the 21st century; if Tesla wants to keep up with the competition, it’s possible graphene batteries may be a part of its future.
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2016.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
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