News is swirling around Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) once again as a new patent emerges indicating the company may use a metal air battery to extend a vehicle’s range.
The patent is for an electric vehicle power train that would incorporate the life of two batteries.
So how will the news affect Tesla and its battery investment, and should we even put much stock into it right now? And what exactly is a metal air battery?
The metal air battery is being looked at by companies large and small, and even those who are skeptical of its performance. The technology has been in development for some time now, and whoever can find a way to unleash its potential would have a clear cut advantage over the competition.
Battery development in general improves roughly five to eight percent each year, which makes research into the metal air battery worth a company's while, even as it takes on skeptics.
A typical battery is made of three parts: an anode on one side, a cathode on the other, and an electrolyte in the middle. For the typical battery used in EVs – the lithium-ion battery – lithium-ion runs from one side to the other, passing through all three to create a chemical reaction that harnesses electrons along the way to create energy.
The lithium-ion battery leads the way in today’s EV marketplace. It’s also heavy, expensive, and cumbersome.
A metal air battery, in theory, would use a metal for the anode – probably lithium or zinc – and only air as a cathode, drawn from the surrounding environment. Hence the “metal air” name it has been given. The electrolyte would be in liquid form.
The reason this battery gets so much esteem is because air is abundant and free, and the battery would require no heavy casing to keep it inside a battery cell.
Theoretically, the metal air battery would be both lightweight and inexpensive.
It would also be game-changing. The U.S. patent titled “Electric vehicle extended range hybrid battery pack system” was originally filed by Tesla on December 8, 2010 and was granted June 25, 2013.
If Tesla does in fact have its hands on metal air battery technology, this would put the company right in line to create an affordable EV with a range similar to our internal combustion engines that would far outclass that of any other automaker.
You can see the schematics at autobloggreen and how it uses two batteries to create an extraordinary amount of range.
With its lightweight and high energy density, a metal air battery could store an excessive amount of energy. With more energy density, less volume is needed, and that’s when you can start to work with a battery that gives a vehicle the kind of range desired and the kind of performance the driver deserves.
This new power train would most likely incorporate the use of a lithium-ion battery to provide electric performance, while the metal air battery would be used in long distances. While the metal air battery has a high energy density, it has a low power density, so the system works only when the two battery types are used together.
But the metal air battery has issues with cost and longevity, both of which take away from its ability to store energy. And there have been safety issues during testing procedures as well. That’s where we are now.
There is still much potential for the lithium-ion battery to grow and improve the performance of our modern EV.
It may be at least a couple of generations before we see anything like the metal air battery used in conjunction with the lithium-ion battery, as Tesla shows in its patent.
When the necessary breakthroughs happen, that’s when we can get excited, and that’s when we’ll start to see vivid changes in the EV market.
Toyota (NYSE: TM) is putting focus on these batteries, too. Tesla gets its current battery from Panasonic (OTC: PCRFY), which is also in close relations with Toyota, so I’m curious to see if anything will spark out of that.
But maybe a startup will emerge as a supplier. We know that Tesla is constantly looking to diversify and strengthen its battery supply.
For now, you can think of this new dual-battery Tesla patent as an answer to GM’s (NYSE: GM) extended range Volt. The Volt offers an internal combustion engine as a backup to its battery.
Tesla takes it a step further.
If there is a breakthrough in metal air, Tesla will likely be on top of it as the company continues to prove it is here to push the boundaries of car design and infrastructure.
Other companies seem more skeptical with all the problems metal air batteries have had during research. GM has stated it will not invest in the technology because it sees no real benefit.
But Tesla is not alone. Like I said, Toyota is working on it, along with others. IBM (NYSE: IBM) says it has a lithium-air battery that could offer a 500-mile range to an EV.
It’s a lot of speculation and hype, but I’m not hearing much more than some dogs barking.
When we do, you’ll be the first to know.
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