RENO, Nev. (AP) — Lithium-ion batteries are not exotic, complicated or big.
But if Tesla Motors locates a "gigafactory" here, the lipstick-sized batteries could change Reno's whole universe.
An announcement isn't expected for months about which among five states would ultimately land the electric car-maker's battery factory, though Tesla is expected to start breaking ground on two or three spots this summer.
If northern Nevada ultimately wins the factory, the region will need a crash course in "li-ions," as they are known. Reno already has some experts.
Before Tesla was a gleam in Reno's eye, Denis Phares was planning to make lithium-ion batteries here.
Phares formed Dragonfly Energy in 2012 and was joined soon after by partners Justin Ferranto and Sean Nichols. He's a former USC instructor and current executive MBA student at University of Nevada, Reno. The partners have picked up several business-competition wins and will head to the Cleantech Open finals in October.
Right now, Dragonfly, which pays some of the rent as a middleman for selling China-made batteries online, is aiming for big-money backers to fund research into making lithium-ion batteries faster, cheaper and easier — and here.
"It's the highest energy and power density combined of any energy-storage medium," Phares said. Li-ions are also safer and longer-lasting than conventional batteries. That's why Tesla uses them and wants more.
Dragonfly's west Reno lab is strewn with battery parts, tools and tables. They're developing streamlined methods to build their own lithium-ion batteries in Nevada — not specifically to power electric cars, but for electric power grid applications and as replacement batteries for lead-acid models currently used elsewhere.
Dragonfly has a patent pending for their more efficient battery-making system.
"The goal is to bring manufacturing back home," Phares said.
Making a li-ion battery is easy. Essentially, anode and cathode foil strips are coated with lithium salt mixed with carbon and packed into a case. A reaction takes place, causing an electron to travel between anode and cathode, and voila: You've got power.
But there are challenges.
For example, getting lithium. Most of the metal is now mined in China, South America and Australia, said Russ Fields, director of UNR's Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.
It is mined underground, in open pits and from brines on salt flats, he said.
Potentially rich lithium sources have been identified in North America, though the only operating U.S. lithium mine is in Silver Peak, near Tonopah.
"It's going to happen. The lithium is here," Phares said. "We are not getting to it. But we will."
Another challenge is the sheer number of battery cells needed for electric cars: 7,000 of the little blue tubes go into one Tesla Model S. That puts the "giga" in Tesla's factory plans, which run to 10 million square feet.
Nearly all li-ion batteries, including those used in Tesla cars, are made in huge China plants. It's too costly to produce them anywhere else.
"When you make things in high volume, you can get the cost down," Phares said.
Far from being competition for Dragonfly's efforts, a Tesla plant would draw even more energy-storage research and jobs to Northern Nevada, Phares said.
"There's plenty of market out there," he said.
His company is aiming for a different battery market: People replacing lead-acid batteries with li-ion models, and, eventually, producing viable energy-storage cells for the electric grid.
"Ultimately, if we're going to get off of fossil fuels and start using intermittent sources like power and wind, there has to be an energy buffer that can power our houses when a cloud comes through or when the wind dies down," Phares said. "There has to be a lot of energy storage to stabilize the grid for those intermittent resources."
But if Elon Musk came calling on Phares and Dragonfly Energy?
"If he wanted to talk, we would talk."
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