What’s Elon Musk going to do with his new $50 million lithium ion battery?

November 24, 2017 5:58 pm

Lithium-ion batteries are what’s needed to power electric cars, but also solar powered planes, because you need energy storage capacity to stay in flight.

Was that what Elon Musk had in mind below?

Musk is the owner of SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla that specializes in solar energy services, and he could use a heavy duty lithium battery to  fly a Photovoltaic (PV) plane over international skies and lift his energy company from its financial doldrums.

Who beside Musk can take a photovoltaic plane, currently in test mode, and make it a reality?

He just delivered on his promise to build this $50 million 100MW battery, the largest in the world, within 100 days, in an effort to help South Australia with difficult energy problems.

Musk also knows a lithium battery is currently and likely going to be part of any future plane flying on solar not fuel.

Would you fly in a PV powered plane?

Read: 7 strange things you likely don’t know about Elon Musk

Shadow dancing

In 2016, the pilots of the Solar Impulse 2 did a roundtrip flight from the UAE and back, taking off on a year long journey, with the sun at their back, literally.

Speaking to CNBC shortly after landing in Abu Dhabi, pilot and chairman Bertrand Piccard said the round-the-world trip had “some elating moments but also difficult moments, setbacks even, and this is the definition of adventure.”

Solar Impulse 2 landed in Abu Dhabi, marking the end of an epic 40,000 km journey, making 16 stops, including in India, China, the U.S., Italy, Egypt before coming to home base.

The Swiss-engineered single-seater aircraft was powered by 17,248 solar cells and runs on battery power at night, averaging speeds at 46 mph.

Watch: 7 surprising things we’ve learnt about Elon Musk

Solar growth

Solar photovoltaic technology is now well known as a widely accessible, sustainable, and clean source of energy that can be scaled to meet humanity’s energy needs. The PV industry is beginning to meet this potential with approximately 6000 TWh of PV electricity estimated to be generated by 2050, which is roughly 16 per cent of the total global electricity demand.

The flight of PV on planes could take inspiration from the wings of a butterfly which according to Verge, a renowned scientific research site, have inspired a new type of solar cell that can harvest light twice as efficiently.

Check this: How realistic is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?

Silicon Wings

According to Manufacturing America, aircrafts with silicone wing flaps are now being modelled after birds.

“The research team, composed of around 50 scientists from 15 European companies, research institutes and universities that received European Union funding had studied the flying behavior of birds in order to come up with a suitable design for the aircraft’s wings,” said the site.

According to a Bremen-based Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) research scientist, Andreas Lühring, their plane prototype showed that the fuel consumption of the aircraft was reduced by 6 per cent because of the reduced air resistance.

The solar-powered aircraft can potentially fly for weeks and months without the need to refuel, collecting energy requirements from the sun for both daytime and night time flights.


According to Phys.org, a nonprofit scientific site, the first solar plane aimed at reaching the stratosphere made an initial low-altitude test flight over Switzerland last May, 2017.

Slated as the first commercial two-seater solar plane in history, in many ways, this project tests the limits of solar energy, lithium-ion batteries and electric motors in flight.

The SolarStratos weighs is just 450 kilos, is 8.5 metres long, with long wings covered with 22 square metres of solar panels, meant to provide it with 24 hours of autonomous flying time.

Pilot Damian Hischier took the craft for a seven-minute test flight, reaching an altitude of 300 metres, Phys.org said.

Eventually, the plane is expected to be able to fly at an altitude of 25,000 metres, an impossible feat using a propulsion-driven aircraft.

Solar drones

Adelaide-based firm Praxis Aeronautics has developed a new process to integrate c-Si solar cells in the composite material of a drone, not adding additional weight to the aerial vehicle, while keeping the costs down.

The father son company, run by Don and Cameron Donaldson, has come up with a laminating process, which allows the cells to operate at maximum efficiency, and improved the flight duration by six times, in comparison to electric drones which can fly for one hour around.

“In the previous efforts to build a solar-powered drone, the success was mostly limited as fixing solar panels on the vehicle was adding too much weight, whereas using thin film to wrap the body of a drone came with high costs of $35,000 per square meter compared to the Praxis method of $1000,” said the company.



Hadi Khatib
By Hadi Khatib
Hadi Khatib is a business editor with more than 15 years' experience delivering news and copy of relevance to a wide range of audiences. If newsworthy and actionable, you will find this editor interested in hearing about your sector developments and writing about it.