Graphene Battery Could Be Tesla's Secret Sauce

September 1st, 2014
in contributors

Money Morning Article of the Week

by David Zeiler, Associate Editor, Money Morning

Talk about your game changers.

According to a report from China's Xinhua news service, Tesla Motors Inc. (Nasdaq: TSLA) is working on a graphene battery that would double the range of its electric cars to about 500 miles.

While Tesla hasn't confirmed the story, there are clues that there's truth to this report...

Follow up:

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk told Auto Express magazine last month that a 500-mile range car is not only possible, but that "we could do it quite soon."

A battery that incorporates graphene is just about the only technology that could possibly fulfill that promise right now.

Graphene is a "miracle material" made of carbon that's about 200 times stronger than steel, one million times thinner than paper, and is an amazing conductor of electricity. It was discovered about a decade ago, but its enormous potential has only just begun to be realized.

Graphene's properties solve several problems that have plagued electric cars so far and discouraged wider adoption of the technology.

Range is just one of those. A graphene battery would also solve a related issue - charging time. Instead of needed to recharge for hours, a graphene battery could recharge in minutes, if not seconds.

Sound unbelievable?

Well, last year researchers at Rice University discovered a way to mix graphene with vanadium oxide to create battery cathodes that could recharge in 20 seconds. The electrodes retained 90% of their capacity even after 1,000 discharge-recharge cycles - another key requirement for a practical electric car battery.

Of course, a graphene battery would also revolutionize mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets - or, frankly, almost any gizmo that requires a rechargeable battery.

Imagine being able to recharge your smartphone in just a few seconds.

Another clue that Elon Musk was referring to a graphene battery in that Auto Express interview comes when he admits a Tesla car with a range of 500 miles "would increase the price."

The current Tesla Model S starts at $71,000 and can go much higher with upgrades. About half the cost of a Tesla is attributable to the battery. Musk has vowed to produce a Model 3 car by 2017 that will cost less than $40,000.

Because of difficulties in manufacturing graphene in both quantity and quality, the material remains relatively expensive and would dramatically increase the price of any Tesla vehicle that included a graphene battery.

But that won't remain true forever; it's just another engineering problem that will eventually get solved. And given the mind-boggling profit potential for those who develop the answers, that moment is likely to come sooner rather than later...

Graphene Battery Production Could Come Sooner Than Critics Think

Companies that are making graphene now expect the price to plummet dramatically over the next few years as new, more efficient techniques are developed.

"We expect that the price will go down from $800 for use on a 4-inch wafer to just pennies per square inch," Bruce Willner, chief science officer for Philadelphia-based Graphene Frontiers, told IEEE Spectrum last fall.

As scientists all over the world experiment with graphene, they continue to make remarkable progress on the manufacturing front - progress that Musk no doubt is watching with keen interest.

As recently as April researchers at Trinity College Dublin said they had found a way to manufacture high-quality graphene by mixing graphite powder (the same substance found in pencil leads), water, and detergent in a blender - a kitchen blender, no less.

The scientists have partnered with U.K.-based firm Thomas Swan to work on scaling the process up, which it is doing now.

Once graphene is available in industrial quantities at a reasonable price - and we're clearly well on the way -Tesla will have its Gigafactory ready to churn out as many graphene batteries as it needs.

It's not hard to envision demand for Tesla's vehicles soaring once they're equipped with graphene batteries that will give them all the advantages - and more - of their gasoline-powered brethren.

And when that happens, Tesla stock will go on a rocket ride that will last for years.

UP NEXT: Graphene is destined to revolutionize many industries, but investing in graphene right now is a bit challenging, though not impossible. After extensive research, Money Morning Executive Editor William Patalon III found two exciting graphene plays. Here's how to profit from graphene...

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