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Hank shares the latest ambitious project from SpaceX and Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk: The Gigafactory. Learn more about how batteries work, what the big deal is about lithium, and why people are getting so charged up. See what we did there?
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I gotta tell ya here at Scishow News, we love ourselves some Elon Musk.  From his pioneering private spacecraft with Spacex to his daring, high speed people moving tube idea known as the hyperloop, Musk is a wellspring of awesome ideas. He’s the closest thing we have to an actual Tony Stark and he seems more determined than anyone to bring our world a little bit closer to science fiction every day.

Now his latest venture, announced February 26th, aims to change how we power our world.  In less than ten years, he says he wants to build the world’s largest battery factory, which you know, to get more press he’s named the Gigafactory.  He hasn’t yet picked a site for it, but the five billion dollar facility will probably be built somewhere in the southwestern US, where by 2020 it will be churning out lithium batteries at the rate of 35 billion watt-hours a year.

Since the battery is pretty much the most expensive part of electric cars, mass producing lithium ion cells will not only allow Musk to sell his Tesla cars more cheaply, but it could also drive down prices for mobile devices and for storing energy generated at home, like from wind and solar.  
To that end, since making batteries requires enormous amounts of energy, he also said that his plant will be at least partly powered by renewable sources. So, why is everybody so charged up about the Gigafactory?  

Well, lithium batteries are a hot commodity because lithium is a highly reactive element that can be used to store lots of energy.  It’s what you’re using right now to power your laptop, tablet and phone.  The teleprompter I'm reading off of, is powered by lithium ion batteries.  And all batteries work by transferring energy from a negative electrode that gives up electrons, to a positive electrode that wants them.  Those electrons are transported by way of ions and a medium called an electrolyte.

The thing about lithium batteries is that the reactions going on inside them can actually be reversed, which means that the batteries are easily rechargeable.  So not only can lithium ions move from the negative side to the positive side of the battery when you’re using your phone, but when the battery cell is plugged into a power source, those ions can move back, effectively recharging the supply of the negative side.

There are some downsides to the technology though, particularly the electrolyte.  In lithium ion batteries, the substance that works best is ether, which you may associate with  anesthetising people in old movies or cartoons. But an ether molecule is really just two hydrocarbons connected by an oxygen atom, and it is crazy combustible, so if the battery shorts out or gets too hot, the ether can ignite.  Which is kinda dangerous.  So some researchers, reportedly including those on Team Musk, are experimenting with alternative electrolytes like lithium imide, a noncombustible inorganic compound or plain old wax to replace the ether.  But so far, nothing works as well.

And while we don’t know what exactly what’s up Musk’s sleeve, we do know that he’s filed a patent for a so called lithium-air battery pack, which uses a lithium ion battery connected to another battery cell that uses oxygen in the air as the negative electrode for an extra boost.  

All I can say is, more power to you, Elon.  You’ll always be one of our favorite innovators,  at least until Obama makes good on his promise to build Iron Man.

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