The electric vehicle (EV) industry has been abuzz with recent news of a breakthrough in a new battery chemistry.
US aviation start-up Wright Electric claimed having achieved an astounding energy density of up to 1,000 Wh/kg — about four times the power of batteries used currently in the latest Tesla vehicles.
Energy or power density — a measure of the power per kilogram of weight — is critical factor in energy storage that is key to advancing the electrification of transport. Tesla 4680 cells measure somewhere between 244-296 Wh/kg.
The power density race, played out in university labs and mass-production factories, could hold the key to a net zero future. In April, China-based CATL — Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd (the world’s largest battery maker) — had announced its successful development of a battery with an energy density of 500 Wh/kg. At this rate, the condensed CATL battery could enable electrification of passenger aircraft.
Now, US start-up company Wright Electric, based in Los Angeles, California and founded in 2016 by Jeffrey Engler and Joe Ben Bevirt, has unveiled a new division dedicated to pushing the boundaries of battery technology.
Wright Electric, known for its focus on sustainable and cost-effective electric aviation technologies, has made strides in the field of battery chemistry. Since 2021, Wright has been experimenting with battery technologies that have been “overlooked” by conventional battery manufacturers.
While some of these battery types may not be suitable for consumer electronics or grid storage, but they hold immense promise in applications requiring extreme lightness, safety, and compactness.On October 3, the company said it was “pushing” it’s high-energy battery solution.
Colin Tschida, Head of Powertrain at Wright, emphasised the company's expertise in building lightweight “thermally-managed” (a.k.a. less fire risk) electric propulsion systems and its vision for applying that knowledge to the design of large molten battery packs.
1,000 Wh/kg battery
The company's approach involved engaging a number of chemistry PhDs to scout for promising battery chemistries, leading to the initiation of a second phase of validation experiments this October.
At the core of Wright Electric's vision lies advanced batteries tailored for aviation — but with broader applications. These electric propulsion batteries represent a significant leap forward in energy storage technology.
In parallel, it is also developing a megawatt-class electric propulsion motor that could powers the Future of electric flight.
In bench tests conducted by Wright Electric, their electric propulsion motor has successfully generated an impressive 1 megawatt of shaft power. This achievement represents a pivotal step in the development of an electric motor-generator intended for powering commercial aircraft.
A megawatt-class motor is widely recognized as a critical component in advancing electrified aircraft propulsion. (Credit: Wright Electric)
Role of lithium-ion
While lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have played a pivotal role in the electrification of terrestrial vehicles, adapting this technology to aircraft poses unique challenges.
Wright said their patented batteries, with up to four times the energy density of most lithium-ion batteries used in current electric cars, offers breakthrough. The key challenge is taking it from the lab or test bed to the market.
If the claim proves to be real, it has the potential to enable the electrification of industries that have been difficult to transform with current technology, including aviation, mining, and sectors heavily reliant on fossil fuels like agriculture.
Wright Electric's roadmap indicates that prototypes for testing will be delivered by 2025, with customers in aerospace and defense sectors slated to receive these high-performance batteries starting in 2027.
As the race to achieve zero-emission electric flight intensifies, battery energy density remains a major hurdle.
Numerous contenders, including Wright Electric, are vying to produce the first commercial electric air taxis and urban aerial mobility solutions. A battery revolution could lift electric aviation projects, ranging from single-seater aircraft to 100-plus passenger planes, to higher highs, thus helping achieve a common goal of reducing emissions.
Industry leaders like Vertical Aerospace, Volocopter, Lilium, Pipistrel, and SkyDrive, alongside aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus, as well as NASA and tech giants like Uber, are propelling the electric aviation revolution forward.
The authors, writing for the Journal of Power Sources (April 15, 2019 edition, volume 419), claimed they had greatly improved battery power density, achieving a breakthrough by using a technique that harnesses carbon nanotubes in the cathode and polymer ionic liquid in the electrolyte layer, among others.
Current endeavours to achieve flight using battery power depend on the familiar Lithium-ion technology found in cell phones and automobiles.
While it can suffice for these applications, the aviation industry requires a next-generation energy storage technology to truly take flight.
Race for high power density batteries
For its part, CATL is reportedly considering at least two locations in Mexico for a manufacturing plant to potentially supply Tesla Inc. and Ford Motor Co.
Some of Tesla’s most advanced batteries such as the 4680 cells, are rated at between 244-296 Wh/kg. If Wright’s claim pans out and is able to commercialise their high-density cells, it would be a huge leap forward from the status quo.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, had claimed in 2020 that based on his computations, a high-cycle life battery produced at volume with a power density of 400 Wh/kg would make the electrification of aviation more viable — and that it would be “probably 3 to 4 years” away.”