Manufacturer CATL expects to change the battery industry by the end of 2023. And Microsoft bets that fusion energy will be on the grid in a mere five years.
A new type of battery is about to change everything
Imagine flying on a plane that doesn’t burn fuel but instead runs on batteries. Or driving your electric vehicle (EV) from Jacksonville, Florida to New York City without needing to charge it once.
To make that happen, we don’t need bigger batteries, we need better batteries with a higher energy density.
A battery with higher energy density stores more energy for the same amount of weight. Energy density matters a lot because an EV doesn’t just need to carry passengers—it needs to carry its battery, as well. So, building an EV with a longer range is not just about adding more heavy batteries—it is an efficiency challenge. Along with making a car more expensive, the additional batteries weigh the car down, making it much less efficient. If a driver takes a couple of 500-mile road trips every week, then hauling all that battery capacity makes sense. But if he or she just commutes 30 miles back and forth to work every day, hauling 1,000-miles worth of heavy batteries is very inefficient and expensive.
Energy density is measured in watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). The lead-acid battery that has been starting internal combustion cars for over a century gets around 25 Wh/kg. (1) The alkaline batteries that powered those old school Walkmans and boomboxes comes in at around 120 Wh/kg. That’s pretty good, but those batteries are not rechargeable. (2) The 21st century batteries we use every day can pack in around 255 Wh/kg. (3) That huge jump in energy density has driven much of the difference in how we use technology. Our phones, our cars, the power tools in our garages and our whole home energy backup systems are all made possible by the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are so life-changing that in 2019, M. Stanley Whittingham won the Nobel Prize for the research that led to batteries with 255 Wh/kg.
Getting even higher energy density unlocks many possibilities. In 2020, Tesla’s Elon Musk said that batteries with 400 Wh/kg would allow for electric planes. He predicted the technology was three-to-four years away. (4)
Last month, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co (CATL), the largest lithium-ion battery manufacturer in the world, announced it had perfected a condensed state battery with an energy density of 500 Wh/kg and that they would start rolling off the assembly line by the end of the year. (5) The breakthrough is based on a semi-solid-state chemistry, unlike current
lithium-ion batteries, which are more dependent on liquid. That difference also brings safety improvements, according to the company.
The China-based company made the presentation at the Shanghai Auto Show and said it would produce batteries for EVs in 2023 but was also actively developing the tech for planes.
CATL has a long track record of delivering on announced battery innovations. If they can deliver this technology to customers in the near future, you can expect to see big changes in our cars and devices soon.
- Lead-Acid Batteries for Future Automobiles
- Primary alkaline battery, Science Direct
- Tesla’s 4680-Type Battery Cell Teardown: Specs Revealed, Inside EVs
- Tesla’s Elon Musk says that batteries enabling electric aircraft are coming in ‘3 to 4 years’
- China’s CATL unveils condensed matter battery to power civil aircraft
Microsoft agrees to buy 50 megawatts of fusion-based electricity from Helion Energy
They say that the one sure way to reach your goals is to put them to paper. Commit your goals to paper and ink, and you’ll have true accountability to yourself.
Helion Energy, a pioneer in the fusion energy field, has taken that lesson to heart and announced a deal to supply 50 megawatts of fusion-based electricity to tech giant Microsoft beginning in 2028. (1) It is the first power purchase agreement driven by fusion energy.
Fusion power is the holy grail of the energy industry. It could bring near limitless clean energy, powered by common elements, with no meaningful radioactivity or byproducts. But fusion power is also a standing joke of the energy industry. Ever since the fusion-based hydrogen bomb was dropped in 1949, scientists have predicted that controlled fusion as a power source is about a decade away. Currently, most experts say commercial fusion is unlikely to be feasible before 2040. (2)
Helion, a startup with around $2.2 billion in funding already secured (3), is riding a wave of breakthroughs in the fusion field with this announcement. In December, the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory achieved what many have called the most important milestone in the field—generating more energy from a reaction than was put into the reaction chamber. A fusion reaction can only occur in high-heat, high-pressure conditions, and this breakthrough was only sustained for a tiny fraction of a second. But it was the validation that the fledgling industry had been looking forward to for decades. The results were announced by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and earned a profile on Sixty Minutes. (4)
Separately, in an administrative win, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced in April that it would treat fission reactors and fusion reactors differently because fusion produces no waste and cannot melt down like today’s fission reactors. That decision simplifies the regulatory hurdles for commercialization. (5)
With as many as 30 private companies competing to cross the fusion finish line, Helion has already demonstrated the ability to lead. In 2021, its scientists achieved 100 million degrees Celsius in their sixth-generation prototype, a temperature they describe as ideal for a fusion reaction. The company’s seventh generation prototype is expected to go live in 2024 and the company hopes it will demonstrate the ability to produce electricity.
Still, Microsoft’s bet on fusion has its doubters.
“I would say it’s the most audacious thing I’ve ever heard,” University of Chicago theoretical physicist Robert Rosner told The Verge. “In these kinds of issues, I will never say never. But it would be astonishing if they succeed.” (6)
- Fusion power by 2028? Microsoft is betting on it, Washington Post
- World-first nuclear fusion plant could generate carbon free energy by 2040, UK government claims, Euronews
- Helion secures $2.2B to commercialize fusion energy, Tech Crunch
- Sixty Minutes, CBS
- Nuclear fusion will not be regulated the same way as nuclear fission — a big win for the fusion industry, CNBC
- Microsoft just made a huge, far-from-certain bet on nuclear fusion, The Verge
The Weekly Sunsong
The early days of summer always put us in a happy mood. And there are few songs more optimistic than Happier Than the Morning Sun, by the legendary Stevie Wonder.