Henrik Fisker’s first stab at an electric car went up in flames, literally.
His company Fisker Automotive was the force behind an electric hybrid called the Fisker Karma in 2012. The $100,000 car had a host of battery issues that caused the automaker and its battery supplier, A123 Systems, to recall more than 600 Karmas, Wired reported at the time.
Separately, the Karma was known to burst into flames, which was said to be caused by the engine compartment rather than the battery. Fisker Automotive went bankrupt in 2011.
But, as first reported by Bloomberg earlier this month, Fisker is back and working on an electric car under the newly minted Fisker Inc. that will be revealed in 2017. Fisker is producing his supercar, the Force 1, through VLF Automotive. He is best known as the automotive designer behind iconic cars like the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9.
Fisker has promised his new electric car will have a range exceeding 400 miles – which would be huge, considering the longest range offered today belongs to the high-end version of Tesla’s Model S, which gets 315 miles on a single charge.
We took a closer look at the battery technology Fisker is promising to use, which he refers to as “the major leap, the next big step.”
A Nobel Prize-winning material
- Fisker Automotive
Rather than working with conventional lithium-ion batteries, Fisker is turning to graphene supercapacitors.
Graphene is both the thinnest and strongest material discovered so far.
The energy applications of graphene have been known for quite some time. In 2010, the Nobel Prize in physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for pioneering research on graphene that opened the door for scientists to study its many applications, like its potential as a battery that can conduct energy better and charge faster.
“Graphene shows a higher electron mobility, meaning that electrons can move faster through it. This will, e.g. charge a battery much faster,” Lucia Gauchia, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and energy storage systems at Michigan Technological University, told Business Insider. “Graphene is also lighter and it can present a higher active surface, so that more charge can be stored.”
But its real-world application so far has been limited by the high cost associated with producing it.
“The reason we are not using it yet, even though the material is not a new one, is that there is no mass production for it yet that can show reasonable cost and scalability,” Gauchia explained.
But Fisker told Business Insider that his battery division, Fisker Nanotech, was patenting a machine that he said could produce as much as 1,000 kilograms of graphene at a cost of just 10 cents a kilogram.
Jack Kavanaugh, the head of Fisker Nanotech, also told Business Insider the machine could feasibly produce 1,000 kilograms of graphene.
The ‘super battery’
- Jack Kavanaugh
Kavanaugh hails from Nanotech Energy, a research group composed of UCLA researchers who specialize in the graphene supercapacitor Fisker plans to use in his car.
Supercapacitors also store energy like batteries, but the way they do so allows them to have faster charge times. Supercapacitors don’t typically hold as much of a charge as lithium-ion batteries, however, because they have lower energy densities.
“The challenge with using graphene in a supercapacitor in the past has been that you don’t have the same density and ability to store as much energy,” Kavanaugh said. “Well we have solved that issue with technology we are working on.”
Kavanaugh said altering the structure of the graphene had allowed researchers to improve the supercapacitor’s energy density, but he didn’t elaborate further, calling the technology “unique and proprietary.” He added that the patent for the machine was pending.
Overall, Kavanaugh is promising a product that not only holds more charge and charges faster than lithium-ion batteries, but that also has a better cycle life. Improving the cycle life means you don’t have to swap out the battery for a new one as frequently as you need to for lithium-ion batteries.
“This particular technology that we’re working on and are using for Fisker Nanotech is a hybrid,” Kavanaugh told Business Insider. “We have been able to take the best of what supercapacitors can do and the best of what batteries can do and are calling it a super battery.”
Fisker refers to the company’s new battery tech as a breakthrough.
“Our battery technology is so much better than anything out there,” Fisker told Business Insider. “Our battery technology is the first battery technology that has taken the major leap, the next big step.”
UCLA researchers like Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner hold several patent applications related to graphene supercapacitors. Both Kaner and El-Kady work for Nanotech Energy.
Kavanaugh said prototypes of the “super battery” have already been made, with new versions of the prototype coming in a few weeks. He said the plant intended to actually produce the battery would most likely open in January and in northern California.
It’s worth noting that Tesla CEO Elon Musk actually came to Silicon Valley to earn a Ph.D. working on supercapacitors, and he has been on record saying that supercapacitors, not batteries, will be the big breakthrough for electric vehicles.
Cheaper than the Chevy Bolt?
Fisker said he planned to reveal the electric car in the latter half of 2017.
Fisker told Business Insider that he first planned to roll out a luxury vehicle that would most likely be built at VLF Automotive, the car company Fisker joined in January. That first luxury electric car will have a limited production run.
“I don’t want to say what kind of car, but it won’t be a supercar,” he said. “It will probably be in the price range of the higher end of the Model S.”
Fisker said he would then produce a consumer-friendly electric car that would be in “an even lower cost segment of both the [Chevy] Bolt and the Model 3.”
“We will have the lowest-cost electric vehicle in the world,” he said.
Fisker said the initial luxury car would boast a range greater than 400 miles.
But competition in electric vehicles is mounting. By the time Fisker unveils his electric car, Tesla may have already beaten the 315-mile range of its Model S or gotten closer to doing so.
Additionally, the Chevy Bolt is expected to be the first consumer-friendly electric car, with a competitive range of 238 miles, scheduled to hit dealerships by the end of this year. Like Tesla, Chevy will be looking to improve its range.
And that only touches the surface of the competition out there. Electric-car startups like Faraday Future and Atieva are looking for a piece of the pie. Big-name brands like Mercedes and Volkswagen are also looking to roll out electric vehicles within the next three to five years.
It’s also hard to put too much faith in Fisker’s claims without seeing the patent application for the technology that can produce graphene in large scale and improve the energy density of supercapacitors.
But Fisker said it was clear who his biggest competitor would be.
“I think it’s pretty clear when you look at the market, when you look at the premium market, there’s really only one company that is out there,” he said, “and it’s Tesla.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner hold patents instead of patent applications.