CATL’s new battery tech could inch electric planes closer to reality

With the world gradually moving toward electric cars, it’s only a matter of time before EVs take to the skies, at least for shorter trips. Inching us closer to that milestone is Chinese battery maker CATL (Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited), which on Wednesday launched a battery at the Shanghai Auto Show that it claims can power electric passenger aircraft. The semi-solid state battery with condensed electrolyte has a density of up to 500 Wh/k, meaning it can store 500 Watt hours of energy for every kilogram of its weight.

The company says it can “achieve mass production of [the] condensed battery in a short period of time,” and it expects to begin mass production of an automotive-focused variant later this year. “The launch of this cutting-edge technology breaks the limits that have long restricted the development of the battery sector and will open up a new scenario of electrification centering on high level of safety and light weight,” stated CATL’s announcement. However, NASA has been testing electric planes throughout the past decade, and others are working on hybrid planes, like ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric aircraft that completed a 10-minute flight this January. Rolls-Royce even flew an all-electric plane at 387 MPH in a recent test.

CATL says it’s working with unnamed partners to develop flying EVs. “At present, CATL is cooperating with partners in the development of electric passenger aircrafts and practicing aviation-level standards and testing in accordance with aviation-grade safety and quality requirements,” the battery maker stated.

Additionally, CATL says it’s working to improve the carbon footprint of its batteries and plans to achieve carbon neutrality for its manufacturing plants by 2025 and across the battery value chain by 2035. It plans to focus on mining, bulk raw materials, battery materials, cell manufacturing and battery systems to achieve the goal. “As electrification extends from the land to the sky, aircrafts will become cleaner and smarter,” the company stated. “The launch of condensed batteries will usher in an era of universal electrification of sea, land and air transportation, open up more possibilities of the development of the industry, and promote the achieving of the global carbon neutrality goals at an earlier date.”

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However, it’s worth tempering our expectations about flying EVs. Some movement in that direction could help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the aviation industry, which accounts for about three percent of global emissions. But it would require more significant advances than CATL’s new battery for them to become a viable alternative to today’s jet-fuel-powered aircraft. So although we may see some commercial electric planes take to the skies within the next decade, don’t expect batteries to power much beyond small and short-distance planes anytime soon.

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