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After years of anticipation, the Tesla gigafactory opened just outside of Reno in 2016. In this series, KUNR explores everything from hiring efforts, the evolution of battery technology, infrastructure and workforce challenges for the region, and more. Our reporting on Tesla earned a 2016 regional Edward R. Murrow award for best small market radio news series from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Battery Tech: Lithium Ion And Beyond

Whitney Powell

As part of our series Behind the Battery Boom, we’re taking a look at a key element of the factory: batteries. Lithium-ion batteries to be exact, and whether the electric vehicle industry’s multi-billion-dollar bet on the technology will pay off.

That is the sound of lithium ion batteries being made. It's a sound that will be humming through Tesla's gigafactory once it's fully operational. By the time the plant reaches full capacity in 2020, it will be producing enough batteries to power half a million Teslas.

Some battery experts have said the gigafactory could already be obsolete by then. Although commercializing battery technology tends to take decades, new energy-storage technologies have made big strides in recent years. Those include aluminum air and solid state batteries, as well as hydrogen fuel cells, all of which could be ready for prime time in as little as five to ten years. Tesla CTO JB Straubel says they don’t want to wait that long.

"I don't think it's lithium forever, I think it's probably lithium for the next five or 10 years. But that doesn't mean we're going to wait and do nothing. There's potential for this to pencil out now, so we're not going to wait and grow when the technology's better."

Researchers began working on lithium-ion tech back in 1912. They saw huge potential in lithium for batteries because it’s very lightweight and can store more energy than other metals. However, it’s also highly unstable, which means it requires additional packaging and chemistry to use safely.

“So when you think about it, you’ve got six times the mass of stuff that doesn’t really provide any energy.” That’s Dr. Michael Freund, a researcher at Florida Institute of Technology.

Sony first commercialized lithium-ion in 1991, but it has exploded in popularity since then and the technology is continuing to improve. Freund says experiments like the gigafactory will move the needle.

"Given enough time and resources, engineers can do amazing things, and investments like this are what's needed to push solutions forward. There is still plenty of room to make lithium technology more efficient."

Tesla’s Straubel points out that even if lithium is replaced by another material in the coming years, the basic structure of batteries is unlikely to change overnight. That means the machinery at the gigafactory won’t be obsolete any time soon.

"If you look back at history, the really big changes are not so common. So we'll see better cathodes, better electrolyte, better connectors -- that's already happening -- but we'll still be working with the same general framework of battery packs for a while still."

That's a bet the University of Nevada at Reno is willing to take, too. The university got a new minor focused on battery technology up and running in just six months. The program was developed with input from Tesla and focuses heavily on lithium-ion technology. Professor Dev Chidambaram heads up the program

"This is the first semester we've had it and we didn't even want to publicize it too much because we worried it would be so popular -- it filled up super fast."

Ultimately, what energy geeks want from the gigafactory is something Tesla has been promising for a long time: revolutionary efficiency that transcends any one industry.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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