Episode 620: Why Batteries Suck : Planet Money While most technology is getting smaller and cheaper, batteries still suck. Today on the show, we learn exactly why, and meet some of the people trying to make batteries better.

Episode 620: Why Batteries Suck

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/403631972/403662732" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Pretty much every morning I get up really early. Because I work with people on the East Coast, I'm up at 6 o'clock, hiding out in my kitchen, trying to work on my cell phone. You know, I surf the web. I check my email. Sometimes I make some calls. And most days by noon, my phone is about to die if I haven't plugged it in. It's just worthless.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Dude, tell me about it. My battery was getting so bad in my iPhone that I did the thing you are never supposed to do. I ordered a battery from the Internet, and I pried my iPhone open, and I changed out the battery myself. And opening an iPhone is really a revelatory experience because when you look at it - this amazing supercomputer - all the computing power is, like, shoved into the corner - tiny, little processors. And the thing that takes up the most space in an iPhone is the battery, the giant battery.

HENN: It's a enormous. It is basically the entire phone. And, you know, if you look at how the battery has improved in the iPhone, it really hasn't improved because the battery has gotten better. It's just the iPhone has gotten bigger, so there's more space for it. And that's kind of the dirty little secret in batteries. Everything else in electronics gets smaller and cheaper and smaller and cheaper every year. And batteries just stay the same.

SMITH: Now, to be fair, this is not just the two of us whining about our iPhones and our personal technology. Anyone involved in this field says the same thing we do. Take Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, a guy who sells cars that are basically giant batteries on wheels. He puts it in a very blunt way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: The issue with existing batteries is that they suck, OK? They're really horrible. They're expensive. They're unreliable. They're sort of stinky, ugly, bad in every way.

SMITH: This lack of a powerful, cheap battery is what is holding back two of the biggest technological revolutions in the world - electric cars and solar power.

HENN: A better battery would make a big difference, so why can't we get one?

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

HENN: And I'm Steve Henn. Today on the show, why batteries still suck...

SMITH: Yeah.

HENN: ...And we meet a couple people who are trying to make them better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: OK, battery haters, we do have to be fair to batteries because they do get a little bit better and a little bit cheaper every year. The big problem is they do not improve anywhere near the speed that everything else improves in our lives. Our laptops, our phones - they can double in power every few years. Batteries - they just get a little bit better. This is why we get so frustrated.

HENN: And really, there are two problems here. There's the getting them to be more powerful problem, storing more energy inside a battery. And then there's a second problem, the how do you get them to be cheaper problem. And we wanted to start with that first one, so I went to Stanford to visit a material scientist, a nanotechnologist named Yi Cui. And he took me through this warren of hallways to his lab where he is trying to start a battery revolution.

OK, so this is your lab?

YI CUI: Yeah, this is my lab.

HENN: He walks me over to this computer-like contraption. It has close to a hundred little, tiny circuit boards sticking straight out of it. They're about the size of maybe two of my fingers, and on each one is a tiny, silver battery, maybe the size of a nickel.

So these are actually your batteries?

CUI: This is actually my batteries, testing new material - store a lot more energy in there.

SMITH: Store a lot more energy. This has been the dream of battery scientists for hundreds of years because what Yi Cui is doing right here is both simultaneously really simple and really complex. The simple side is that batteries are basically two different kinds of metal with some sort of solution between them. That's what Alessandro Volta did 200 years ago to copper and zinc - added salt water, and - buzz - created an electric current. It's complicated because there are only so many metals out there. In fact, batteries have moved through lead and nickel and all sorts of other metals until they got to the one that is the best candidate for a battery today, the lightest metal there is, lithium.

HENN: There is one problem, though, with lithium. If it gets wet or touches the air, it catches fire. It blows up. Yi Cui's big idea to make a new super-battery, a revolutionary battery. His big idea is to add more lithium.

And you're not afraid they'll blow up?

CUI: No. These are button size. They will not blow up. It's very hard to get them to blow up - only when you go to the bigger battery size.

SMITH: I'm sorry, Steve. When somebody says they want to put more lithium into something that can explode, it does not make me feel safe.

HENN: They're super, super careful. They've built these glass boxes that have rubber gloves built into the side, and they fill the glass boxes with argon and inert gas. And to make their little test batteries with more lithium, they stick their hands into these rubber gloves and then manipulate tiny little bits of lithium into their little batteries and squeeze them together with what looks like a giant lemon-squeezing press.

Wow.

CUI: This is one of the argon glove box right there. So people make batteries inside.

HENN: Yi Cui's big idea - the way he hopes that you can jam more lithium into a battery without it blowing up - is to wrap the lithium in this - it's kind of like a carbon fiber hairnet. It's incredibly thin - 500 times thinner than a human hair. And it holds the lithium in place as the battery charges and discharges. And he thinks that will keep the battery from breaking open and ultimately prevent it from catching fire.

SMITH: And the theory is that if this works, you could get four or five times the energy out of a battery. A battery in an iPhone could last a week. A Tesla car could drive - what? - like, a thousand miles.

HENN: Yeah, it would be amazing. But Cui says this is years and years off. You know, sometimes he takes these little, tiny batteries out of his argon box, and they work. Sometimes he takes them out, plugs them in, and there's a spark.

CUI: So you - sometimes you can see the spark, like, coming out.

HENN: Poof - a little spark like at a barbecue or a campfire, and it's back to the drawing board - years of work.

SMITH: Years of work, which means this consumer-electronics dream of making everything smaller and cheaper and more powerful - this dream for batteries is years and years away. So there is a school of thought out there that says, you know what? We're going to give up on making batteries smaller. We're going to give up on trying to squeeze more power into a smaller space. People say, screw it. We cannot easily make a better battery. The revolution is years away. So in the meantime, let's make batteries cheaper. Let's just make more of them. That's the plan that JB Straubel is trying to pull off a Tesla.

JB STRAUBEL: My name is JB Straubel, and I'm the CTO and one of the cofounders here at Tesla Motors.

HENN: Now JB is one of the few people in the world who really loves his battery. He's been obsessed with batteries since he was a little kid. When he was 14 years old, he somehow scraped together, like, $1,500 and bought an old Porsche 944 with a blown out engine. He pulled out the engine, put in an electric motor and converted it into an electric car. That Porsche had a top speed of 110 miles an hour - just not for very long.

STRAUBEL: It had, like, 20 miles of range. It was totally impractical. So that kind of, you know, cemented it for me that, OK, the focus here needs to be on energy storage and batteries to make, you know, this technology something that's useful to the world.

HENN: The batteries in that car weighed close to 1,000 pounds. And now, more than two decades later, he makes another car that has a 1,000 pound battery pack, the Tesla Model S. But that car goes for 265 miles, 10 times farther than the electric car he built as a kid.

SMITH: Which is a massive improvement in battery technology, but it's not revolutionary.

HENN: No. I mean, the Tesla is a $100,000 car. I mean, really, it's kind of a rich person's plaything. And that's not going to change the auto industry or what, you know, you or I get to drive.

SMITH: Until Straubel thinks they can make a cheaper battery. Now he is fine with lithium-ion, with the technology we have now. His mission is to somehow make more of the them and make them cheaper.

HENN: So they're building a giant factory in the desert. They call it the Gigafactory. It's 5 million square feet.

SMITH: Or to put it in terms that reporters understand...

STRAUBEL: It's about 90 football fields.

SMITH: It's always the football fields.

HENN: This one factory is going to produce as many batteries in one year when it's fully built as the entire planet produced in 2013. And you'll need them if you start powering cars with batteries. The key, though, is making them cheap enough. JB says one way to do that is to put all of the different parts of building a battery under one roof. Right now the battery supply chain is spread out across the planet, and it's incredibly inefficient. I mean, just take one ingredient. Just take the lithium.

STRAUBEL: The lithium that goes into batteries - it often - it starts in South America. You know, it will go to, you know, parts of North America to get processed. It may go back to Japan, you know, to get processed into yet another material, built into a battery, shipped to the U.S. to be made to a battery pack. You know, that car might get shipped to Europe. So by the time the car is delivered, you know, the poor lithium atom has, you know, gone 30,000 miles - horribly inefficient.

SMITH: Just putting most of those steps under one roof way out in the desert, this could shave 10 percent off the cost of a battery.

HENN: Right now most batteries are made in Korea and Japan. Those are expensive places to have factories. Labor costs more. Energy costs more. So there's some savings there too.

SMITH: And then bit by bit the batteries get a lot cheaper.

STRAUBEL: You know, we're adding up a bunch of single digit percent improvements to get to something that's, you know, 30 percent or greater.

HENN: And Straubel is betting if batteries get cheap enough, people won't just use them to power cars. He thinks people could start putting them in their homes as a way to save power that they make with solar panels.

SMITH: We just did a whole podcast on solar electricity, and we didn't really touch on this. But it's a fairly obvious problem, right? You can outfit your whole house with solar panels, but what do you do at night? You still have to be connected to the grid. You still need commercial power.

HENN: With batteries, you wouldn't, necessarily. And it could actually change how the whole grid works.

STRAUBEL: It's amazing the electric grid can work as well as it does with no storage. You know, it's an entire market for energy transaction that has no inventory and no buffer. So every single thing is delivered, you know, instantaneously, just in time.

HENN: Last night, Elon Musk, the CEO and cofounder of Tesla, got up on stage and talked about the ability of cheap batteries to change everything, save the world, make the grid more efficient, make everyone happier. And, you know, he revealed these sleek, modern looking battery packs that you could hang up on your wall.

SMITH: And Elon Musk had even planned this whole event so it happened late at night after it was dark on the West Coast. And he's on stage. He's strutting about. He's showing off. And he reveals that he had hooked up a bunch of industrial Tesla batteries to the building they were standing in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUSK: Oh, wow, the grid, it's actually zero. (Laughter) This entire night has been powered by batteries.

(APPLAUSE)

MUSK: Not only that, the batteries were charged by the solar panels on the roof of this building.

(APPLAUSE)

MUSK: So this entire night, everything you're experiencing, is stored sunlight.

SMITH: Steve, I am happy that the geniuses of this world are focusing on a battery. But still in the back of my head, I still keep hearing the voice of the battery skeptic that says, you know, it's been 200 years. You know? There might be an argument that batteries are pretty much as good as they are going to get. And no matter how much improvement you make, no matter how cheap you make them out in the desert, there is still something that comparatively provides more energy for less money. And that thing is, unfortunately, for climate change and various things, that thing is gasoline. That's what's going to run our cars for the foreseeable future.

HENN: And you can see this battery fatigue seeping into even parts of the high-tech world. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year there were lots of announcements, not about better batteries, but about technologies that would use less power - so screens that were more efficient and phones and that sipped at your battery instead of taking huge gulps of power.

SMITH: And the latest news in batteries, the biggest thing everyone is talking about, is not a battery that lasts longer. It's one that just charges superfast. In fact, here's a video from CNET.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've seen this phone go from 15 percent charged to 100 percent charged in just about two minutes. There is a bit of a trade-off involved, though, this thing is a 1,000...

HENN: It's kind of like admitting defeat. It's, like, all right, fine, this battery is not going to last any longer. But when you're desperate, when you're fighting your way to that one open plug at the airport, you can plug it in, and get in and out in a couple minutes. That's the huge advance.

SMITH: And then you've got a do it all again in a couple hours. We'd love to hear what you think of the show. You should email us, planetmoney@npr.org, or you can reach us on Twitter. We're @planetmoney.

HENN: Our producer today is Nadia Wilson. We wanted to say goodbye to our wonderful intern, Ryan Kailath.

SMITH: Before he goes on to what I think will be an incredibly successful radio career, we wanted to give him the chance to tell our listeners what they might want to listen to now that they're done with PLANET MONEY.

RYAN KAILATH: I think it might be Morning Edition.

SMITH: Morning Edition.

KAILATH: Two things I know about Morning Edition - one, the most listened to of all of the NPR shows. And the second one - I actually only know that one thing about Morning Edition.

HENN: It's on before you get up.

KAILATH: That is also true, two things I know about Morning Edition.

SMITH: (Laughter). Find you local station schedule at npr.org. I'm Robert Smith.

HENN: And I'm Steve Henn.

SMITH: Thanks for listening.

HENN: Thank you, Ryan.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.