Gutknecht: Elon’s Achilles

Imagine being stuck in a full-stop traffic jam on a freeway full of electric cars during a Minnesota arctic blast. With temperatures sub-zero, batteries start going dead. Electric motors grind to a halt, further blocking traffic.

Source_ AP Photo_Charles Krupa

Imagine being stuck in a full-stop traffic jam on a freeway full of electric cars during a Minnesota arctic blast. With temperatures sub-zero, batteries start going dead. Electric motors grind to a halt, further blocking traffic. The situation cascades downward as others start to lose power. Soon the icy interstate is completely plugged with helpless electric cars. All going nowhere. Worse, without electric power, passengers have no heat. Now consider that these vehicles will need recharging before they can go anywhere. That will take many hours, perhaps days.

If you’re in sunny California, this problem is easy to ignore. In Minnesota it gets cold. Very cold!

Elon Musk has already taken his place among some of the great industrialists. Like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, he has applied his genius to a variety of game-changing innovations.

We first met at a nondescript warehouse not far from LAX. Elon was largely unknown then. The warehouse was sparsely populated with pipes and tanks. It didn’t look much like the world headquarters of a rocket factory he called SpaceX.

Elon invited us into his small office where he told his life story. Born in South Africa, he came to the States for college. He wound up at Stanford for a PhD. in applied physics. His family roots actually run through SW Minnesota. Musk’s ancestors were missionaries who were sent to South Africa. He left Stanford after only a few days to develop software with his brother. They sold their company for several hundred million dollars. Wisely getting cash. With a wry smile, he said, “That was good.”

He determined that if this web thing was going to become a new marketplace, there would be a need to securely transfer payments. So they created a platform that would be sold to another startup, PayPal. He had always been fascinated with rockets and space. He believed he could build rockets at a much lower cost than the government-sponsored incumbents in the industry. His intuition and creative genius proved him correct.

From there he launched the electric car named after the father of electric motors, Nicola Tesla. The brand quickly became an iconic status symbol. Elon knew two things. First, environmentally conscious consumers would love the zero emissions. Second, electric motors are inherently more efficient than internal combustion engines. The computer guidance systems he used to put satellites safely into space could be modified to make travel here on earth safer as well.

Competing with companies that had been building automobiles for a long time proved to be far more difficult than he’d anticipated. His perseverance again paid off.

But, electric vehicles have an Achilles Heel: the battery. Tesla’s rechargeable batteries rely on rare earth minerals. They are expensive (around $7,000 installed) and take considerable time to recharge. Like the batteries in your phone, as they get older or very cold (think Minnesota) they don’t hold a charge as well.

Elon has focused on lowering battery costs by building mega factories. He must know that what he really needs is a genuine breakthrough in battery technology. He needs a cheaper battery that will recharge much faster and hold that charge longer. One that will be less vulnerable to extreme temperatures. A battery that is lighter and isn’t dependent on foreign-sourced mines.

There may be good news on that front. Another brilliant scientist named Dr. Sam Weaver at Proton Power Inc. has discovered an inexpensive way to produce a material that is rich in graphene. He calls it ProCene. Graphene is an amazing substance. It is lighter than aluminum and 100 times stronger than steel. It has other fascinating qualities. Graphene is one of the best conductors of electricity known to man. It can also concentrate electrons (store electricity) better than current batteries. In other words, ProCene could be the key to creating lightweight batteries that will finally make electric vehicles practical for the masses.

Elon may want to make a trip down to Knoxville to see this.  It might just be the cure for his Achilles Heel.

Gil Gutknecht served six terms on the Science Committee in the U.S. House.