As electric-car maker Tesla beefs up its batteries and spins up a giant battery factory, a shadowy horse is moving up from behind. British vacuum magnate James Dyson tells Forbes that he will spend $1.4 billion over the next five years to build a battery factory and push battery technology forward, theoretically eclipsing Tesla’s existing tech.
The commitment is a risky bet for Dyson and his namesake company, which he owns in full. To get a sense of why, consider Dyson’s most notable major investment in batteries so far: The acquisition last year of solid-state battery startup Sakti3. That company’s batteries have still only been demonstrated in the lab, and some have even questioned whether its promises will ever be fulfilled.
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The immediate obstacle is cost. Experts speaking to Forbes estimate that even a modest vacuum cleaner battery produced using solid-state technology would currently cost $2,000. At the time of the Sakti3 acquisition, Dyson said his company would invest up to $1 billion on a factory to bring production of solid-state batteries to scale and, at least theoretically, push the cost down.
If commercialization and cost-cutting efforts are successful within Dyson’s five year window, it could present a threat to Tesla, because it would open the possibility of scaling solid-state technology up to car-battery size. Sakti3 has previously claimed its technology could store energy at nearly twice the density of the lithium-ion formulation used in Tesla’s batteries.
That formulation is the bedrock of Tesla’s massive investment in its Nevada Gigafactory, which couldn’t be easily retooled to produce a different kind of battery. Having a competing, much more effective battery technology available, while Tesla was still locked into li-on, could open the door for other automakers to offer electric vehicles with a big range advantage.
For more on battery development, watch our video.
Of course, there’s a long chain of contingency between a vacuum maker investing in experimental battery tech, and putting a better battery in a production vehicle. For one, Dyson is clearly focused on small rechargeable electronics. Then there’s the very real possibility that solid-state won’t pan out at all—which is why Tesla has stuck with the tried and true lithium-ion, for all its limitations.
And that’s probably the strongest warning sign about the Dyson investment. When Elon Musk has already decided pushing batteries further is too much of a longshot—Elon Musk, who calmly argues for the sensibility of colonizing Mars—it might be wise to tap the brakes.