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Is Tesla's Battery Running Out of Charge?

Lithium-ion batteries have come a long way in the past 20 years, and for good reason. Billions have gone into researching how to make these batteries commercially viable. However, li-ion batteries still need a lot of work, and even if they reach their theoretical maximum for energy storage, they still can't compete with octane, according to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. For Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) , this could spell trouble.  

Source: Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons. 

Battery Chemistry 101
When you break it down, a battery is just a way to store energy. Further, they have three essential elements -- an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. The anode and the cathode are electrodes, while the electrolyte -- the stuff in between the anode and cathode -- allows the flow of electrical charge between the electrodes. The idea behind new battery technology is to experiment with these materials to find a battery that is, in essence, superior. 

Currently, Tesla's vehicles, along with Boeing's (NYSE: BA  ) Dreamliner, Toyota Motor's (NYSE: TM  ) RAV4 EV, and General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) Chevrolet Spark EV, all use a Li-ion battery. Additionally, these companies have spent significant time and resources on improving this technology. And that's great -- they've all delivered different vehicles, and a plane, that are more energy efficient and "green." However, these ventures may also be shortsighted.

Consider: Following a surge in gas prices in the 1970s, lithium-air batteries were pushed as being the next big thing for powering cars. But, after 40 years of development, the short rechargeable life of li-air batteries -- among other things -- has remained problematic. Recently, however, researchers at MIT and Sandia National Laboratories made a significant breakthrough in li-air batteries.

By watching how li-air batteries charge, Yang Shao-Horn, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and her team, were able to observe the oxidation of lithium peroxide -- a byproduct of discharging li-air batteries that interferes with charging. Their observations are critical for designing the next step in li-air batteries, and have facilitated a much-needed stepping-stone in resolving the challenges with li-air batteries.

 Why this spells trouble
Two of the main reasons li-air batteries pose a threat to li-ion batteries is that they have the potential to hold five to 10 times as much energy as, and would be cheaper than, li-ion batteries. In other words, cars using li-air batteries would theoretically be able to go much greater distances than current EVs -- around 500 miles per charge -- and be more comparable in cost to their gas counterparts. Two big obstacles in getting consumers into EVs. 

Who's betting on air and other technology
One company betting on Li-air is Toyota . Toyota's never been shy about its dislike for li-ion batteries, and now it's teamed up with BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF  ) to develop li-air, solid-state, and fuel cell vehicles, which it hopes to start bringing to market in 2020.  It states, "As Toyota anticipates the widespread use of electric vehicles in the future, we have begun research in developing next-generation secondary batteries with performance that greatly exceeds that of lithium-ion batteries." 

Li-air batteries aren't the only batteries that pose a threat to li-ion. Toyota is also researching magnesium-ion batteries because of their potential high energy density, and scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently overcame a major problem facing lithium-sulfur batteries by using a solid electrolyte. Chengdu Liang, the lead author of the study, said, "This game-changing shift from liquid to solid electrolytes eliminates the problem of sulfur dissolution and enables us to deliver on the promise of lithium-sulfur batteries."  

More pointedly, batteries themselves may not be the future for green cars. As I've written before, cryogen (liquid) air powered engines, are reemerging as a possible alternative energy, and with recent successes, are gaining more momentum .

Watch out, Tesla
The reason these advances could be especially concerning to Tesla is that Tesla's main operation is based around cars powered by li-ion batteries. Yes, they're the creme-de-la-creme of li-ion batteries, but if li-ion batteries fall out of favor for better batteries or new technology, Tesla could be in trouble. It's not like Boeing, Toyota, or GM, which have a variety of products to fall back on. Tesla's eggs are in the proverbial "one basket." As such, it's in a risky spot. Yes, it could pan out, but there are a lot of advances in green technology that seem to have much greater potential than li-ion batteries -- and some could become commercially viable, soon. Consequently, this is something investors should closely monitor.

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Read/Post Comments (43) | Recommend This Article (18)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 7:39 PM, jamesdan567 wrote:

    The author says "Tesla's eggs are in the proverbial "one basket." As such, it's in a risky spot. Yes, it could pan out, ..."

    I'd like to remind the author Tesla has an 80,000 unit contract with Panasonic for its batteries. Conservatively, that's probably around a $2 billion contract. I think its pretty easy to conclude that Tesla and Panasonic are aware of all the possible road maps and SWOT for the existing batteries and for potentially emerging newer technologies.

    In the end, Tesla and Panasonic are far more capable to manage the battery technology than the author, who is making a pretty wild accusation about the types of risk Telsa is taking on. I suspect Tesla is not putting all their eggs in one basket as the author suggests. Even if they were, I think they know what they are doing.

    Elon has a bachelor's degree in economics and physics. He was studying applied physics at Stanford. He has received many awards, including the George Low award for the most outstanding contribution in the field of space transportation in 2007/2008. Musk was recognized for his design of the Falcon 1, the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit.

    I think we should let him manage the battery roadmaps and risks/rewards thereof without distracting him. I think he can handle a few batteries.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 7:40 PM, AdamSssss wrote:

    Are you seriously implying that Tesla is somehow locked in to using Li-ion batteries? They already changed their battery chemistry once, and there is nothing stopping then from doing it again when the technology is there. I have full faith that Elon Musk and his team of engineers will go with whatever is the absolute best.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 8:26 PM, SinicaLass wrote:

    dumbest article today. Tesla is much more than a battery company and better batteries are good for Tesla not bad.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 8:31 PM, SteveTG3 wrote:

    agree with earlier posters. Musk has previously said he is agnostic as to different battery technologies. He and JB Straubel lead a team that are looking at every battery chemistry in development.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 8:48 PM, RrGuitars wrote:

    And, if OPEC decides to create another fake shortage of oil, or another embargo, all the vehicles except Tesla's will be in trouble.

    This article should never have been written!!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 9:46 PM, SRNoyes wrote:

    I am sad for the loss of fact checked articles. How this one ever got on the fool is beyond me. Tesla does not care what chemistry is used to store its PE. A better and cheaper battery tech helps Tesla more than anything. Think about it. A Tesla S with 1000+ mile range.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 9:51 PM, Limeman wrote:

    Article is idiotic and agreed with poster above - dumbest by far of the day. To assume that Tesla is not at the forefront of battery technology is beyond short-sighted to say the least. I can almost guarantee that Tesla is right now testing model S and model X mules with battery technology that the author doesn't have a clue about. What a maroon.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 10:13 PM, consAREidiots wrote:

    couldn't they adapt a new battery tech to fit their housing?

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 10:29 PM, Marshgre wrote:

    If a better battery is developed I would imagine that any Model S owner is only 90 seconds away from having the technology installed in their car (cost permitting of course)

    I hope investors read more than the headline so they see how pathetic this article is.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 10:57 PM, Genius266 wrote:

    Dear Article Writer,

    I would like to let you know, Elon Musk has studied and continues to study by inventing for human being improvements; which he works more than 90 hours a week, meanwhile you are writing an article in just 30 minutes. If there is going to be better than Li-ion batteries be sure that Tesla will be the first one to use them. I am sure that they are working for better alternatives than electric cars already. If you are going to write an article you should quote some professors in your article and not just give your opinion without knowledge because it's not possible you to understand what's going on.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 11:21 PM, amccalme wrote:

    I like how the writer put a note in about compressed air vehicles. Here's a good idea: let's use electricity generated at a huge loss, compress it to obscene (read dangerous) pressures at another huge loss, then use that pressure to generate torque at, again, another huge loss. . . What could be wrong with that?

    Really this guy is missing out on the ideas that:

    1 - Tesla is an electric car manufacturer, NOT a battery manufacturer.

    2 - Electricity is the most efficient method we currently have for converting stored energy to motion, meaning in a world where energy efficiency is king, a vehicle that wastes 10% of the energy delivered to it, not including regen, which was produced at 50%+/- efficiency is going to beat a small IC engine any day of the week!

    3 - All Tesla needs to win is for their charging/battery swap technology to be adopted as standard. Since they are the only company out there spending millions on a class3+ network I don't see something else coming out winner, assuming no underhanded negotiations between government officials and less established tesla competitors. At this moment they have the most cars out there and are on track to have the most appropriately spaced charger network available. That alone should constitute a win.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 11:25 PM, CrazyDocAl wrote:

    People need to reread what the point is. Tesla doesn't have the funds to invest like Toyota. That means the company will need someone else to develop new battery tech and sell it to them to survive.

    As it is Tesla is surviving because they are selling carbon credits and the tech they developed and patented to companies like Toyota. It's cars sales alone are even close to enough to make the company profitable.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 11:32 PM, CrazyDocAl wrote:

    Anyone who thinks a large company like BMW or Toyota will just gladly sell any tech that it develops to Tesla is sadly mistaken. For Tesla to survive it needs to have a third party make a breakthrough and hope that a larger company doesn't buy the patent rights.

    As for swapping batteries, don't count on it. The fact is Li-ion has a limited life. As your battery start to die in 5 years what's to stop you from just going to a swapping station and getting a new one? Why would anyone with a new battery want to swap theirs out for an unknown?

    That would require Tesla to lease batteries so the owner never gets stuck with a bad battery. But now owners of the Tesla have a new bill they have to pay. It's that or Tesla will have to eat the cost of the batteries, there goes the profit.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 11:35 PM, Connelky wrote:

    Wow this would be really sobering news if tesla was a li-ion battery manufacturer....

    As pretty much every comment has said, ANY advance in battery technology is good news for all electric car makers.

    Electric cars have motors that need a voltage, the motor could care less if that voltage comes from a fuel cell, li-ion, li-air, electrified rail, whatever.

    I am seriously starting to think that you wrote this to attract tesla haters so they will read it and realize that some really exciting battery tech is in the pipeline...

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 12:20 AM, Marshgre wrote:

    Tesla has already filed patents for new battery formats (like metal-air) they will be safe they are far out ahead of the pack now anyway. Everyone else is just playing catchup at his point.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 12:22 AM, krumpstead wrote:

    Tesla is already planning on using metal air batteries as the technology advances. They even hold a patent for a hybrid metal-air/non-metal-air battery system:

    The sooner metal-air batteries (which will provide 1000+ miles per charge) become feasible the more likely EVs are to take over traditional cars. It's a good thing for Tesla and all EV makers.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 8:48 AM, Grumpycat wrote:

    There is no way this company will survive unless it's bought out by a larger co. with more resources and money or investors keep pouring more money into the pit. The comments by these readers also suggest they are shareholders and betting this overpriced company on one man. This is all short term hype, hope, and lots of ignorance and shortsightedness.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 10:00 AM, MiserblOF wrote:

    This company can survive and prosper as a niche product, but I believe it's going to be more than that over the years. The gas guzzling dinosaur is dead, regardless.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 10:45 AM, Lugus wrote:

    I find it difficult to imagine that, with everything else Tesla has done so right, they would fail to have their eye on the horizon of battery technology. Designing in the ability to change battery type seems like something of a no-brainer. As the article points out, a battery is a cathode and an anode with an electrolyte in between. So, as long as you can match up the cathode and anode with their appropriate connection points, and possibly have the ability to modify how current is passed, changing out batteries doesn't seem all that insurmountable.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 11:47 AM, DrChandra2010 wrote:

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned the Israeli start-up Phinergy, which back in March 2013 debuted an aluminum-air primary battery that was used as a "range extender" battery in conjunction with a Li-ion battery in a BEV. (Disclaimer: I am not an employee of Phinergy and have no financial position in them; I do have a Ph.D. in materials physics and did research on Li-ion batteries). The only follow-up info I have heard is that Phinergy is partnering with a global automaker to have the batteries available by 2017. As they claim a range extension of up to 1000 km, this would be a more serious threat to Tesla, in my opinion.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 11:51 AM, StanO6 wrote:


    1) Rocket ships

    2) Electric cars

    3) Writing nonsense for the

    One of these is not like the others.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 11:55 AM, Teslabeliever wrote:

    Owning a Model S is a paradigm changer! I love driving my Tesla EVERY day! I never have issues with range, I never have have to find a charger other than at home, and I drive a lot. One if the best things about the Tesla car is that it can always keep up to new battery technology and believe me Elon Musk will ensure that it does. If they come up with a battery with a 1000 km range, I for one would go get one (in 90 seconds worth of shop time).

    In the old days an article like this would have only been available in printed media. Said printed media would have had an editor. Said editor would have made sure an article like this never made it to print.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:13 PM, Billiardman wrote:

    Are you saying that Tesla could not adapt their cars to work with a better battery? That's just dumb. Certainly the charging circuit in Tesla's cars could be adjusted to work with any battery. I agree with the other posts. Better batteries would be great for Tesla.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:28 PM, Decoy0527 wrote:

    My conclusion from the article comments is that many (most) members of the Tesla fan club are the most thin-skinned people in the world. They can't seem to disagree without insults. Probably means that they are not as confident as they claim to be.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:44 PM, DAVE9778 wrote:

    This is like saying Ford was tied to the flat head motor. New motor, re-engineering, and off to the races.

    New battery technology will cause Tesla to re-engineer some of the power system but it is by no means a blow to the company. I would go further and say the better the technology the more cars they will sell. They can only be hoping for these breakthroughs. Imagine if you could get in a Tesla and drive coast to coast some day.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:47 PM, jurand00 wrote:

    The Fools are consistently anti-Tesla. But they do not fool anybody with their bias.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:49 PM, AdamSssss wrote:

    @CrazyDocAl - Toyota is already partnering with Tesla (Tesla provides the drivetrain for the RAV4 EV).

    Not to mention that Tesla is NOT a battery company - they get their cells from Panasonic, who IS a large company with a large R&D budget (6.6% of sales in 2011), so you know Panasonic is continually striving to develop cheaper batteries with more capacity that can recharge faster. Plus, if another batter supplier can make a better, cheaper battery, nothing is stopping Tesla from switching.

    Perhaps you (and everyone else) should do some research before bashing Tesla.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 1:51 PM, jingleboost wrote:

    Yep, every day no matter what comments Tesla makes everyone is so quick to jump on them and try to put them down.

    Tesla is a game changer for the industry and the 'good-ol-boys-club' way of doing things is a thing of the past, they just don't know it yet.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 2:22 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    All things said and done, I would like to hear from the author her reasons for believing that Tesla would not/could not adapt to or adopt any newer more effecient battery technology.

    You still out there, Katie?

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 3:00 PM, chrischamb1 wrote:

    To all readers: I just have one request of Katie Spence.....Please, please, please don't EVER write another "opinion piece" on Tesla again! As the vast majority of commenters have written, Tesla has tremendous options when it comes to its battery pack and what technology it utilizes. The 2 or 3 naysayers sound to me like the "drill baby drill" Neanderthals who still think gasoline should be the fuel of choice for the next hundred years.......Yeah, good luck on that one!

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 3:10 PM, jhw1009 wrote:

    IBM (one of my favorite companies) Almaden Research started the Battery 500 project in 2009 to develop a new type of lithium-air battery technology which expected to improve energy density tenfold. These are top notch researchers and don't you think Elon Musk and company doesn't know that? IBM doesn't build EVs so if the project is successful, I am sure they will cross licensed the technology to the EV manufacturers. Year 2020 commercialization of lithium air should not be a stretch in my opinion and at such time Tesla can license the technology unless they are developing their own. Model S battery is swappable so some current owners may choose to replace with lithium air battery as well.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 4:17 PM, Bman00 wrote:

    Author clearly doesn't understand Tesla's technology or business model. Please justify why you think Tesla is tied to Li-ion technology and would be unable to accommodate new battery technology?

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 4:55 PM, Cencio wrote:

    For all the Tesla skeptics out there, including the author, I have just a few words of advice:

    Before you criticize, do these things:

    1) Drive the car

    2) Visit the factory

    3) Meet the leadership team (not just Elon)

    If you do these things, as Tesla's largest investors with billions of $$$ of skin in the game have done, you will see that your objections are hopelessly baseless.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 5:22 PM, km4hr wrote:

    Uh Katie, women are trying to move forward and prove that they have a place in the area of STEM. You're not helping their cause much by exposing your ignorance of technology.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 4:02 AM, Velek wrote:

    I don't understand why Tesla couldn't swap batteries for whatever technology comes along.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 10:39 AM, RayInLV wrote:

    It will be easy to change batteries. There is now a new technology based on sulfur (a solid) that increases storage density by 4x.

    While not on the market yet, it will make a huge difference.

    Want more, just search "New all-solid sulfur-based battery"

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 10:57 AM, Teslabeliever wrote:

    To 'Decoy 0527':

    We're not thin skinned at all. We just have a hard time with unresearched, nonsensical drivel.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 11:09 AM, daveosome wrote:

    As a TSLA investor, I welcome and even look forward to reading bearish articles on the company. It is very important to hear views that oppose my own because, as Bill Mann says, my stocks are on sale every day.

    That said, this article should not have been allowed to be posted. It's misleading and illogical to think that TSLA is locked into one battery chemistry forever. Indeed, the battery packs are easy to replace so Tesla only cares about the chemistry for as long as their contracts with the battery manufactures last.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 12:30 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    It stands to reason, based on her silence, that Katie agrees that there is no valid reason for believing the Tesla could not/would not employ any newer, more efficient/powerful battery technology. Another fool writer loses credibility. If you can not defend your position, don't make it.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 4:39 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    Dear Fools,

    Please don't think I'm ignoring your questions. In fact, I'm currently in the process of writing another article specifically addressing why it's not as simple for Tesla to swap one battery for another. I imagine it'll go out on Fri or Sat, and the working title is "Is Tesla's Battery Running Out of Charge: Part 2"

    Foolish Best,


  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2013, at 10:33 PM, amccalme wrote:


    I think you're too busy trying to defend your actually foolish and clearly biased position to really listen to what the many here are saying. There's an easy engineering reason why Tesla or any other electric car manufacturer would not pigeon hole themselves into a battery:

    From the perspective of a systems engineer, what kind of battery is inside that black box bolted to the bottom of the car doesn't matter. To this person, its a "black box." The engineer may have some requirements of said black box. In the case of a well designed electric car and its operation, here are basic things a systems engineer looks for: Storage capacity - Allowable charge/discharge rate (internal resistance) - Nominal voltage - Operating range (temperature and pressure). To the systems engineer (the guy who has to make it work in the car) nothing else matters.

    Lets say a new battery technology comes along. In order for it to be considered superior to Tesla's current battery it will need greater charge/discharge rates. It may also require greater energy density OR improved calendar life. It may even perform exactly the same, but cost less.

    What are the primary factors where some future battery may differ Tesla's? The big hitters for me are form factor, nominal voltage, and safe operating voltage range. Maybe some future battery requires air flow due to chemistry. In this case with form factor and a possible need for other changes to the battery system (air flow instead of or along side liquid cooling for instance) Tesla has already made such a change very easy with their modular battery system. Do you need fans for the battery? Add them! Considering that a viable battery technology will likely be in the pipeline for a year or two before it reaches the belly of your car (and for safety it better), Tesla has plenty of time to design a universal replacement module for not only future, but also existing cars. Thats part of what makes the idea of a quickly swappable battery so awesome! Not only can you get a new battery in the time it takes to fill my Mazda3 with gas, you can also upgrade technology!

    But what about the other two issues? These are both easily addressed, for once you've taken 6 months to a year to change your battery box, you've changed the number of cells in a bank to reach the nominal voltage required by the vehicle, plus or minus a few volts. Also, as I'm sure Tesla's battery packs have some digital handshake with the vehicle and software/firmware updates are made regularly, changing the calibration of the "fuel" gage and the onboard charger is child's play. Really, a 10 year old with basic coding experience can fix that right up!

    Here I come to what is for sure your final argument. "What about alliances between competitors and other battery companies?" You might want to ask GM how A123's bankruptcy has affected them. You may want to ask Toyota how their investment (pigeon hole) in nickel chemistry batteries has helped them. Most assuredly both companies have been hurt. I don't see deep alliances or bet the farm policies as sound investments for any car company these days. That would most certainly be foolish, Katie. I can assure you that the system Tesla has shown off in the modular battery can easily soak up the vast majority of new stuff to come. With a design that allows you to swap the whole battery system (remember, its a black box) in 90 seconds its hard not to.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:34 PM, Indiefundit wrote:

    To simplify the commentary:

    1. Tesla has battery swap already built in

    2. Tesla has it's own metal air hybrid patents

    3. Tesla has a vertical integration and multiple separate R&D teams to learn from thanks to Musk - Solar City, Space X

    4. Tesla has notable auto industry partnerships and is a provider of certain automotive components to other companies

    5. Tesla is financially astute and takes advantage of lending programs (which it paid back) and carbon credit marketplaces to maximize investment /cash utility

    It's partnerships, multiple revenue streams, rabid fan customers, consumer reports review, astute visionary leadership with proven execution track record, market engagement and world recognize brand all contribute to it's strength and value.

    I challenge other smarter minds than myself to find the actual faults in their approach rather than red herrings. I would value analyses that find those flaws wherever they may be - rather than sensationalistic "supposed red flags".

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2013, at 12:48 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:
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