BUSINESS MAVERICK

Why Elon Musk can make even batteries sexy

By Toby Shapshak 5 October 2020
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Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alexander Becher)

Billionaire’s project is more than a mere love affair with the Tesla Powerwall; it’s a potential solution to the world’s energy problems.

Batteries are boring. Everyone knows that. They are the least sexy part of any technology, aren’t they?

But when Elon Musk is unveiling them, they suddenly are sexy. One of the big tech events – much like Apple unveilings its latest sexy gadgets – is Tesla’s Battery Day. A whole day for batteries. It’s like having a whole day for printers, the other generally dull topic in the tech industry. But this is more than a mere love affair with the Tesla Powerwall; it’s a potential solution to the world’s energy problems. 

Musk has previously said his long-term goal with Tesla is more about the batteries and replacing fossil fuel power sources. Renewables have a significant problem: they are good at accumulating energy when it’s sunny or the wind is blowing, but not for on-demand use as Ye Olde Eskom Coal Station. 

To make renewable energy viable, you need to be able to store that energy somewhere. Batteries are the obvious answer, but they need to be able to store enough for a hungry economy.

And that is what Musk says is the ultimate aim. Let’s hope he gets there before “420” as he once tweeted about the “what is the right time to smoke a joint” meme.

The new batteries are called 4680 – because the cylindrical battery is 46 by 80mm – and have been used for months in Tesla models.

Without getting overly technical, Tesla engineers have found a way to build a battery that is not in danger of overheating. To do this, the much larger 4680 battery uses what’s called a tabless design that looks like a rose gold spiral.

“Sometimes, what’s elegant and simple is still hard,” said Drew Baglino, Tesla’s senior vice-president of powertrain and engineering. “And it took us a lot of trials, but we’re happy where we ended up.”

Musk added: “It may sort of sound a bit silly to some people, [but] for people who really know cells, this is a massive breakthrough.”

Although no actual battery was shown off – only mock-ups – Baglino said tens of thousands of batteries have already been produced. “I want to stress that this is not just a concept or a rendering. We’re starting to ramp up manufacturing of these cells at our pilot production facility just around the corner,” he said.

Experts warn that this might take years to be production-ready on a mass scale. But Musk has always made outrageous plans for his electric car company and generally tends to follow through on them. Part of the 4680’s appeal is that he says it will allow him to make a $25,000 car – a good $10,000 cheaper than the current Tesla Model 3.

“We’re not getting into the cell business just for the hell of it,” Musk said, “because it’s the fundamental constraint” for his ultimate goal of manufacturing 20-million vehicles a year.

Investors weren’t impressed, and its share price fell 7% in after-hours trading last Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the controversial billionaire is having – frankly – a spectacular year, whether anyone thinks his new 4680 batteries are a breakthrough or not.

Most significantly, he flew two US astronauts to the International Space Station on a SpaceX rocket, driving them out to their flight in a Tesla, the first private flight for Nasa since it retired its space shuttles.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s share rally this year made it the most valuable car manufacturer in the world. It propelled Musk to the fourth-richest person in the world, with his $84.8-billion wealth just $15-billion shy of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The Pretoria-born “laaitie” has also claimed a new world record, after launching 60 more Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, for SpaceX to have the most satellites operated by a single company. 

This network of satellites is being piloted to provide fast broadband-like connectivity for northern America and Canada, but Starlink could become a potential fast and cheap way for Africa to get online.

Meanwhile, Tesla announced this month it was taking preorders on its home-powering Powerwall in South Africa. (I obviously placed an order.)

Musk, who has been described by the New York Times as “arguably the most important and successful entrepreneur in the world”, is living up to the hype.

Along with his plan to take tourists to space, he’s pushing ahead with plans to fly people to the moon and Mars using SpaceX’s new Starship. As if all of that isn’t enough, he’s involved in AI development and Neuralink, a start-up trying to create a brain-computer interface.

Batteries may be dull, but like so many other of his projects, Musk has a way of making them special. When the two US astronauts splashed back to Earth earlier this year, just consider what Mission Control told them: “Welcome back to Planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX.” Not bad for an oke from Pretoria, right? DM/BM

Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

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All Comments 3

  • Not just a ‘laaitie’ from Pretoria, but an old boy from Pretoria Boys’ High. The school where they teach you how to think, not what to think. That’s why the produce exceptional people, across the board, mostly good, but even bad.

  • It is worthwhile watching Elon’s whole battery day presentation. Apart from the battery it gives a good window into his thinking to cut costs, speed up production, and utilise floor area more effectively. His competitors will be hard pressed to keep in the race, never mind to catch up. In addition anyone following the new grid battery orders will have seen that Tesla have orders for some massive grid batteries. And en passant they have just bought out (saved from liquidation) a German firm of 220 people that specialises in making the machines to make batteries.

  • The mass production of batteries at low cost that may also hopefully last longer is going the be one of the biggest game changers in the world we live in right now. That’s everywhere from transportation to getting homes and businesses off the grid.

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