Some high-range, low-weight batteries are still too expensive for cars. But not for planes

October 25, 2021 | Press

This article orignally appeared in Morning Brew.

Emerging Tech Brew – Energy density is a constant pursuit for those who make batteries for electric vehicles. If the clunky batteries found in electric cars and trucks could simply be made lighter, the vehicles would have far better range.

In fact, California–based startup Cuberg says by using light-weight lithium metal, its batteries can provide 70% increased range and capacity, as reported in TechCrunch. The only problem? It isn’t cost effective on the ground, and it likely won't be for nearly a decade.

That’s why Cuberg has its eye on the sky.

“Aviation has a much stronger drive to get next-gen cells, because when you’re carrying weight around in the air, it’s much, much more expensive than a car,” said CEO Richard Wang, who founded the company in 2015 when he was still a PhD student at Stanford.

In the short-term, the industry provides a market for cutting-edge battery technology. Farther down the road, the rise of electric aviation could help mitigate the environmental impact of air travel—which currently accounts for about 3–4% of all US greenhouse-gas emissions—and create an airspace buzzing with drones, air taxis, and electric planes.

Cuberg, which was acquired for an undisclosed amount by Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt in March, is now sharing commercial prototypes of its batteries with companies building these electric aircraft.

We spoke to Wang about what light-weight batteries could mean for the future of aviation.

Where do you expect to see advanced battery technology applied over the next few years?

Small trainer planes are the earliest application, and this is already starting to be used at flight schools. And then people are developing up to 20-seater, propeller-driven planes with electric and hybrid electric.

These are going to be useful for a lot of short-haul flights. Early examples would be like your flight between the Hawaiian Islands, where you need to fly and right now you have to hop on a 737, and it’s super inefficient—both carbon- and cost-wise. The small electric planes will be many times cheaper and more efficient.

Then there are quite a few startups that have strong valuations, a lot of financial backing, and they’re working on air taxis. It’s much quieter and more efficient and low-cost than a helicopter and more reliable, but it does vertical takeoff and then it transitions into horizontal flight with wings and then it lands vertically as well.

This is used for intra-city travel up to like 100 miles, 150 miles. You could cover big city distances with air taxis very, very efficiently.

Other than the electric planes and the air taxis, the third category would be various kinds of larger drones. Not drones for photography and stuff, but more cargo-delivery drones. We’re seeing a lot of pickup in this area for autonomous cargo delivery.

How much more accessible could this make air travel?

This is expected to be a completely new sort of aviation market. Because electric aviation is so much cheaper and more reliable, you can actually operate small planes much more cost-effectively.

In the future, anyone could basically go to their local small airport and jump in a five- or 10-person plane and fly, you know, 200 miles, and it would be very cheap—almost like a train, but without needing the infrastructure. I think comparable to train travel is the expectation for these kinds of planes—very low cost. That’s the exciting vision for what it does for transportation, because you could start to use these even for commuter flights or regional travel.

The US in particular, I think, is a great market for this because the US has this enormous base of airports, small airports, all around the country. So rather than having to go through your big international airport, with all the overhead, you go directly to your local airport and take your small plane and directly fly to your destination. It’s just way more efficient and also customer friendly compared to the existing model—at least for anything up to several hundred miles you could do with full electric.

People think it’ll have some pretty dramatic societal impacts as well, because it really changes how you think about city design and where people live, and, arguably, distance becomes less of an obstacle for people when transportation gets so much more efficient.

I think you would imagine sort of a movement out of big cities and toward more kinds of exurbs that are like 50 miles out, because people can actually travel much more efficiently.

Is there an idea within the industry of how long it would take for something like this to be available commercially?

The two-seater flight-school planes are already starting to be commercially sold. Some have already been certified.

You have a number of planes that are a little larger, kind of like a Cessna four- or six-seater kind of plane. Some of them are like seaplanes. Those will probably come in about the next two years. You’ll start to see those for island-hopping applications.

And then you’re going to start, I think, seeing the 20-seater kind of planes, maybe around 2025 or 2026, which is also the time when you’ll start seeing the early air taxis coming into operation.

But you’re talking about very small planes at this point. Is it feasible for electric planes to support the number of passengers a 737 can carry?

There is a limit. With better batteries, you can go to bigger designs. I think maybe you could get to a 30- or 40-person plane that’s fully electric, but when you get bigger, you have to start getting into hybrid electric. And hybrid electric might take you to like the 100-passenger range, but that’s still a lot smaller than like a typical Boeing or Airbus.

For those really big planes, batteries simply are too heavy—even with next-gen improvements—for those longer flights with more people. That’s where you are going to have to rely either on hydrogen fuel cells or synthetic fuels that are made from carbon capture and electrical processes to create fuel synthetically.

And that industry is still very, very early stage, but ultimately you’d need something like that to decarbonize the longer-range planes.

With the FAA already working on this, is electric aviation something that is understood or embraced at a public policy level? Is the US thinking that far ahead?

I think the US is a little behind Europe in their thinking on this. In European countries, they’re already actively promoting electric aviation and thinking about banning short-haul flights, which would have a huge, huge impact.

I feel that the US isn’t quite there yet from a regulatory perspective. I haven’t seen any big aviation push in the infrastructure bills coming. So that’s still focused more on clean electricity generation and so forth. Those are the fundamentals that you have to get right first.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.