Tesla's battery advancements could pave the way for an electric jet.
During a question and answer session at the company's Battery Day on September 22, CEO Elon Musk said he believes the company's batteries "will, over time, start to approach" the energy density required for an electric jet.
The idea is not an official Tesla project, but Musk has spoken on several occasions about his ambitions for an electric jet. The main stumbling block, Musk has claimed, is batteries are currently too heavy for the amount of energy they hold.
The Tesla electric jet has a long history: Musk claimed in 2012 he'd had a design in mind for years. But the main issue, as stated over the years, is that a jet battery would need to be the right density for the jet to lift itself off. Musk explained on The Joe Rogan Experience in 2018 that cruising doesn't require much energy, and landing can use gravitational energy.
While the Tesla Model 3's battery weighs around 250 watt-hours per kilogram, Musk figures a jet would need around double that capacity. While 400 watt-hours would be suitable, 500 would be ideal. Tesla acquired Maxwell Technologies, a company which claimed to have identified a path to 500 watt-hours, in February 2019 for $218 million. Musk said in August that a 400 watt-hour battery would be three to four years away from volume production.
At the company's Battery Day, Musk joined Drew Baglino, senior vice president of powertrain and energy engineering at Tesla, to describe the firm's approach. Instead of working with partners like Panasonic for all its batteries, it would start producing some of its own cells based on in-house designs. These designs would offer a 54 percent jump in battery range for electric cars and a 56 percent drop in price per kilowatt-hour.
In the question and answer session, Musk and Baglino were asked about what these new cells could do for vehicles like the electric jet:
"Thinking long term, is there any other segments that this new battery will be able to to disrupt or electrify, beyond just the initial Model 2 or cheaper sedan like a boat, Boring Company Loop, plane? [...] Or is the Model 2 such a big deal because it decreases the cost of transportation that that is really the disruption, or should we get hype that this new cost curve opens up different vehicle categories like a high passenger density bus, Boring Loop, boat, plane?"
In response, Musk said:
"Well, I mean, there are batteries in limited production right now that do exceed 400-watt hours per kilogram, which I think is about the number you need for decent range, medium-range aircraft. And I think our batteries will, over time, start to approach the 400 watt-hours per kilogram range as well."
Tesla is currently working on speeding up production on its in-house battery, expecting to reach 10 gigawatt-hours over the course of the coming year before ramping up to 200 gigawatt-hours on its own lines.
The Inverse analysis – Musk has spoken many times about an electric jet. In 2018 he told Joe Rogan that he'd outlined his idea to "friends and girlfriends." But while the battery could pave the way for the electric jet, it seems Musk is avoiding any strong announcements until the technology matures.
Tesla's main focus over the next three to four years is likely to be a $25,000 entry-level (terrestrial) vehicle, announced at the same event. But if Musk's predictions are correct, it could be around that time when we start to see the battery take shape.
As Musk outlined a bold plan to transition the entire world onto clean energy at the same event, it seems he may be thinking even bigger than just the jet.