Richard Wang is trying to introduce lighter and more powerful batteries to the world. The best way to do that, he says, is by electrifying airplanes.
Wang is the founder and CEO of battery startup Cuberg, which is trying to use new, advanced chemical combinations to develop better batteries than the lithium-ion cells that serve as workhorses for laptops, cellphones and electric vehicles. There are many companies trying to do something like this—QuantumScape and Sila Nanotechnologies to name a few—each with a different stance on what chemical composition or material science breakthrough will deliver the goods. And like other next-generation battery concepts, Cuberg’s cells will be more expensive than regular lithium-ion cells, at least initially. But where Wang differs is his idea of the best way to overcome this barrier and bring his technology into the mainstream. He wants to focus on an area that the drive for electrification has barely touched so far: flights.
Cuberg is banking on what are known as lithium-metal batteries to get the job done. Instead of using graphite for the battery’s anode, as most conventional lithium-ion batteries do, Cuberg’s batteries use solid lithium, which Wang says results in much higher performance: 70% more energy per unit weight and volume than most the good lithium-ion batteries available today mean that electric planes can go much further and be much more useful. However, Cuberg’s batteries will need a lot of lithium to overcome elevation as well competition for the metal Wang says recycling will need to fill the gap as mining operations increase.
Richard Wang, Founder and CEO of Cuberg
Wang started thinking about electric planes when he started his battery company in 2015. At the time, he was a PhD student at Stanford studying materials science, and there was no shortage of battery companies started based on academic research. “A lot of battery startups came out of academia with great ideas and tons of funding, and they were all trying to go after the auto industry,” he says. That would make sense, he says, because with Tesla gaining momentum and other car companies looking to move away from internal combustion engines, automakers appear to be the biggest potential customers for batteries. But Van felt that this thinking was wrong. “What you see is that invariably most of these startups really struggle to thrive,” he says. “Even when they haven’t gone bankrupt, they’ve been around for 10, 15 years and still don’t have a commercial product in the automotive industry.”
The problem, Wang says, is that the top priority for car companies isn’t really putting the most advanced next-generation batteries into their vehicles—at least not in the short term. This is because car companies operate on low margins; they have to make sure that everything that goes into putting a car together stays below a price point that people can actually afford to buy it at and that they can still make a profit at.
However, aviation has always been different. Fuel is one of the biggest expenses for airlines. When cutting-edge advancements like weight-saving carbon fiber components come along, they’ve historically been willing to pay higher upfront costs for airplanes if it helps them save money down the road. This means they tend to take advantage of new technology faster than car companies. Wang is betting that the same paradigm will apply to his batteries.
The aviation industry is in desperate need of decarbonisation solutions – aviation represents approx 2% of all humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. There are currently few easy options, and most potential carbon offsets, such as so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” produced from biomass or captured CO2, will be difficult to implement at scale. Proposals to power aircraft with electricity are also in their infancy, and such aircraft would have limited range compared to fossil fuel-powered aircraft. Still, they have the potential to make a difference.
Kuberg has not yet confirmed Wang’s thesis. The company — which was purchased from battery maker Northvolt last March—is testing its batteries in small drones, with full-scale aircraft tests planned for 2024. Wang says they’ll likely start appearing on the commercial market around 2026. That, he says, could begin to have a major impact on decarbonisation. With current battery technology, the flying air taxis that technologists hope will soon become commonplace are likely to have a range of about 70 miles, while Cuberg officials say their batteries will take the same aircraft roughly twice as far. A zero-emission electric plane could probably travel more than 300 miles, while the range of hybrid-electric planes would be even longer. All of this would help reduce emissions from short-haul flights in the US, according to Wang. And he says these electric flights — which would have an emissions footprint similar to driving an electric car — could help fill other niches. “In some ways, it’s actually more analogous to how you would think of high-speed rail,” Wang says. “But without the infrastructure needs.”
More must-reads from TIME