Richard Wang is working hard to bring lighter and more powerful batteries to the world. The best way, he said, is to electrify the plane.
Wang is the founder and CEO of battery startup Cuberg, which is trying to use new, advanced combinations of chemistries to develop batteries that are better than the lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, cell phones and electric vehicles. There are a number of companies trying to do something similar – to name a few – QuantumScape and Sila Nanotechnologies – each with a different story about what chemical composition or material science breakthroughs will deliver. Like other next-gen battery concepts, Cuberg’s battery will be more expensive than regular lithium-ion batteries, at least initially. But what makes Wang different is his idea of the best way to overcome this hurdle and bring his technology into the mainstream. He wants to focus on an area where the electrification push has so far barely touched: flight.
Cuberg is betting on so-called lithium metal batteries to do the job. Instead of using graphite as the battery anode like most traditional lithium-ion batteries, Cuberg’s battery uses solid lithium, which Wang says leads to higher performance: 100% more energy per unit weight and volume than the best lithium-ion batteries. 70% more energy is available using batteries today, which means electric aircraft can fly farther and be more useful. Cuberg’s batteries will need a lot of lithium, though, and to overcome stiff competition for the metal, Wang said recycling will have to fill the gap as mining operations ramp up.
Richard Wang, founder and CEO of Cuberg
Wang started thinking about electric aircraft when he started the battery company in 2015. At the time, he was a doctoral student in materials science at Stanford University, and there was no shortage of battery companies based on academic research. “A lot of battery startups come out of academia with great ideas and a lot of money and are trying to break into the automotive industry,” he said. That makes sense, he said, because automakers appear to be the biggest potential customers for batteries as Tesla grows and other car companies focus on transitioning away from internal combustion engines. But Wang thinks that thinking is flawed. “What you’re seeing is most of these startups are always struggling to get bigger,” he said. “Even if they’re not broke, they’ve been around for about 10, 15 years and still don’t have an automotive commercial product.”
The problem, Wang said, is that the top priority for car companies isn’t actually getting state-of-the-art next-generation batteries into their vehicles — at least not in the short term. That’s because car companies have thin margins; they have to make sure that everything needed to assemble a car is below the price point people can actually afford, and they still make a profit on it.
Aviation, however, has always been different. Fuel is one of an airline’s biggest expenses. They have historically been willing to pay higher upfront costs for aircraft if cutting-edge technologies, such as weight-saving carbon-fiber components, are available to help them save money in the future. That means they tend to adopt new technologies faster than car companies. Wang is betting that the same paradigm will apply to his batteries.
Decarbonization solutions are urgently needed in the aviation industry – which accounts for about 2% of all human greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, there are few easy options, and most potential carbon fixes, such as so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” made from biomass or captured carbon dioxide, will be difficult to deploy at scale. Proposals to power aircraft with electricity are also in their infancy, which would have limited range compared with those powered by fossil fuels. Still, they could make a difference.
Cuberg has not confirmed Wang’s thesis. The company, which was acquired by battery maker Northvolt last March, has already tested its batteries on small drones and plans to test them on a full-scale aircraft in 2024. They could start appearing on the commercial market around 2026, Wang said. , he said, could start to have a huge decarbonisation impact. With current battery technology, the hovering air taxis that technologists hope will soon be commonplace may only have a range of about 70 miles, while Cuberg representatives say their batteries could allow the same aircraft to travel about twice that distance. A zero-emissions electric aircraft may fly more than 300 miles, and hybrid electric aircraft can go even longer. All of this will help reduce emissions from short-haul flights in the U.S., Wang said. He said those electric flights — which have an emissions footprint similar to driving an electric car — could help fill other areas as well. “In some ways, it’s actually more similar to what you think of high-speed rail,” Wang said. “But there is no infrastructure requirement.”
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