Much reporting on batteries is shallow. Partially, it’s because most battery companies are secretive, making it hard to get the information needed to parse hyped claims. But it’s also because reporters don’t always ask the right questions. Below are the questions worth asking and the sources we used to develop a more clear-eyed perspective on the industry.
HYPE OR NOT?
Every few years, somebody makes a claim to have built a battery than can be fully charged in five minutes. It’s one of the many claims that make it sound as if the next revolutionary battery is going to show up in your smartphone, or in your car, next month. As a reporter who writes about batteries, I get at least one of these incredulous claims every month. Here are the questions I ask to tell whether the claim is hype or reality.
The questions to ask
1. Was the battery developed by an individual, a university lab, a startup, or a large company?
Individual inventors have in the past changed the course of history. But science has become so complex that any individual claiming to have made a breakthrough needs to be looked at with a big dose of skepticism.
Around the world, there are some truly innovative researcher at universities. The battery claims they make can be real. But often they’re talking about a cell that can work well at the lab scale only, and it takes many years (often a decade or more) before a battery can go from lab to commercial availability… if at all.
You might be asking, “what about companies with teams of researchers and lots of financing?” The growing interest in batteries has attracted billions of dollars of private capital, which has led to a boom in battery startups. Often these companies are at the cutting edge of innovation, with tech that stands a serious chance—but is still a few years away from commercial applications. The reason they make major claims before their tech is truly ready is to find more investors to ensure they have the cash to make it through the difficult development and scale-up phases.
Large companies in the industry rarely make claims about having new technology. That’s because these companies have the resources to take the battery all the way to commercial application without having to drum up investor interest. But if such a company does end up making a claim, it’s likely serious, suggesting it’s trying to get its new battery tech to market faster than a potential competitor.
Rule of thumb: The smaller the group of people behind the battery claim, the lower the chance the claim will stand the test of time.
2. What are the battery’s specifications?
People in the battery industry tend to be cagey about details, because if an invention has real legs, it could make billions of dollars for those behind it. But extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, and so I always ask the following questions:
- What’s the cathode material?
- What’s the anode material?
- What’s the separator?
- What’s the electrolyte?
- What’s the largest battery by energy capacity that you’ve built so far?
- What’s the battery voltage at full charge?
- What’s the energy density and power capacity?
- How many life cycles can the battery withstand before its capacity falls to 80% of where it started?
- Have you tested your batteries for your actual use-case?
- If you won’t answer one of the above questions, please explain why.
Rule of thumb: I rarely write about a battery invention if I don’t have answers to most of the questions on this list. It’s not really possible to reasonably test the claim without the answers.
3. How many years before the battery is commercially available and for what applications?
I like asking this question because it gives me a chance to test the inventors’ confidence in their claim. If it’s at lab scale and the answer they give is three years, it’s easy to see the inventors are overconfident. If the answer is that it’s already commercially available, follow up by asking who’s buying the batteries.
4. Have your claims been verified by a third party? What does the report say?
Many startups agree to send their cells to a third party for testing, in order to prove their viability for possible customers. This is often the make-or-break moment for a potential commercial deal, which means startups only send out cells when they are confident about their claims. The verification report can then be used to run the claims past academic experts to have more assurance that the battery claims are worthy.
Akshat Rathi at Quartz: I hope you found this battery field guide convincing enough to follow me on Twitter, where I slay bad battery ideas and hyped news stories.
James Temple at MIT Tech Review: Temple has been writing about batteries for years now. Based in San Francisco, he usually has the scoops I don’t.
Henry Sanderson at Financial Times: Sanderson’s beat is mining and commodities, and he publishes good stories on the materials supply for batteries.
Bloomberg’s Hyperdrive: The site’s many reporters keep on top of the ever-changing landscape, with solid reporting on the battery industry from all over the world.
Yet-Ming Chiang at MIT: Chiang has founded three battery companies, while keeping his day job as a professor of material sciences at MIT. We interviewed him for this series.
Venkat Viswanathan at CMU: Viswanathan is one of the sharpest minds in the battery field, and he’s made a name for himself sussing out oddities in new electric-vehicle batteries.
Craig Weich of Sila Nano: Weich does business development for Sila Nano, a battery startup. He’s worth following on Twitter, where he posts actively about the latest important industry news.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance: It’s pricey, since it requires a subscription service to Bloomberg’s Terminal, but worth it if your business is connected to the lithium-ion battery space.
Avicenne: A Paris-based consultancy that keeps a keen eye on the entire battery market. It produces mostly paid reports, but publishes an annual market trends report available for free.
International Energy Agency: Another reliable and up-to-date source of all types of global energy. Much of the data are available for free.
Current Status and Future Trends of the Global Li-ion Battery Market (2018): Produced by Paris-based consultancy Avicenne, the report has excellent data on all battery types, the materials that go to making them, and projections for the market’s future.
2018 Lithium-ion Battery Price Survey: Produced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, it is one of the well regarded sources for latest lithium-ion battery prices.
Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy by Seth Fletcher: Published in 2011, this book does a great job of laying out the most detailed history of lithium-ion batteries. It’s easy to read and introduces all the important people who contributed to the field.
The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War by Steve LeVine: This 2015 book follows one national lab in the US and its attempt to build the next generation lithium-ion battery. It’s strong on narrative, but doesn’t go much into the history of lithium-ion batteries or into equally worthy efforts in other labs or companies.