Wondering if Tesla is making a graphene battery? The short answer is “probably not.” But there’s more to the story than that.
Tesla has generated a lot of consumer interest with its Model 3, a US$40,000 car that it believes will help make electric vehicles (EVs) available to the masses. Today, the Model 3 is the world’s best-selling plug-in EV model, according to Statista, with worldwide unit sales of more than 300,000 in 2019.
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 still wondering whether Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries may eventually include another interesting material: A single layer of crystalline allotrope within carbon known as graphene.
Why the speculation about graphene batteries from Tesla? A battery is composed of a cathode and anode, and lithium-ion batteries commonly contain a graphite anode. However, graphene technology has the potential to be leveraged in lithium-batteries as a graphene electrode.
Although there have been reliability challenges with these electrode materials, reduced graphene oxide — a solution of water and graphene — has displayed promising attributes within lithium-ion batteries.
In addition, when a metal oxide is attached onto graphene, energy storage functions are markedly improved. Metal oxides are commonly used in lighting, magnets and superconductors, among other applications. So is a graphene battery from Tesla a possibility? Read on to find out what could be in store.
Graphene battery for Tesla: Could it happen?
Widely regarded as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, graphene has an impressive list of characteristics: It’s a better electricity conductor than copper, impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel (but six times lighter) and almost completely transparent. Furthermore, 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. But could graphene really be used to make better lithium-ion batteries? And if so, is that something Tesla is pursuing? The short answer is “probably not,” 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 because 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, 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 (TSE:6752), have a maximum 330 mile range among the company’s top-line models.
- Interest returns once 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.
Graphene battery for Tesla: Challenges and competition
Unsurprisingly, there are hurdles to commercializing the use of graphite materials in batteries. 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’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.
That said, there are other companies interested in the idea of graphene batteries that might someday power EVs. For example, major tech company Samsung (KRX:005930) is working on a graphene ball battery that could reduce charging times from 45 minutes to 12 minutes. Of course, investors are clamoring to know how soon this new development could be applied to the auto sector.
There’s also a startup from Spain called Earthdas that has developed a graphene battery that charges motorcycles and electric bikes in only five minutes. Again, people speculate that it’s only a matter of time before it can be used for other vehicles.
In early 2020, Spain-based Graphenano reported that together with a Chinese partner it is working to develop a graphene polymer-based battery that would allow for a range of up to 500 kilometers and the ability to recharge in less than 5 minutes.
Also in 2020, Chinese EV maker Guangzhou Automobile New Energy announced that it has developed a graphene-enhanced battery that can be charged up to 85 percent in 8 minutes. Guangzhou believes the battery can be available for mass production as early as the end of this year.
In a further sign of development, Sila Nanotechnologies is developing a battery that bypasses the use of a graphite anode and instead replaces it with silicon. These silicon anode materials have a charge rate that surpasses graphite cells, and the company states that silicon anodes have the ability to absorb lithium ions at a faster rate than graphite due to the fact that they have a higher energy density.
In line with this, Enevate is a firm that is developing silicon-based lithium batteries, which it claims have superior technology compared to graphene materials. “We can sustain a charge rate 10 times as fast as a conventional graphite cell,” Robert A. Rango, CEO of Enevate, told CNBC.
As a graphite anode surface area is prone to cracking, this negatively impacts its ability to store energy. Silicon, on the other hand, can adapt to a large surface area.
Overall, it would appear 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 the company’s future.
Do you think the graphene battery revolution is coming? Tell us in the comments.
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.