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1801: Alessandro Volta presents his invention — the battery — to Napoleon. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty.

One of the most confounding areas of research is the battery, a technology that, while invented more than two centuries ago, is still frustrating scientists. But amid robust electric-car competition pitting the U.S. against Germany, China and other nations, researchers say their hopes are growing for a breakthrough.

Driving the news: One of the companies that has attracted much attention is Sila Nanotechnologies, an Alameda, Calif., startup that claims to have figured out how to build a working silicon anode, one of the two electrodes that make lithium-ion batteries work.

Why it matters: A breakthrough using silicon would pack much more energy than the standard graphite anode. The problem with silicon, however, is that it expands dramatically in use, shattering the battery.

What they did: Sila says it has solved this problem and raised battery performance by 20% over current commercial rivals.

  • Gene Berdichevsky, Sila's CEO, tells Axios that the company's anodes still swell, but that the structure of the electrode absorbs most of the expansion.
  • "We solve this by compensating for it in the particle structure (creating room for its expansion correctly)," he says.

What's next: The anode will undergo its first commercial test in consumer devices next year, Berdichevsky adds.

Be smart: A significantly better battery is still years ahead. Even companies such as Sila that claim to have resolved a fundamental technical roadblock say they will need to try out their batteries first in small devices, not electric cars.

A further reason for caution: The most-discussed startups, including Sila, aren't fully revealing the data behind their claims. In the past, this was a red flag for batteries that were more ideas than commercial breakthroughs.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Rahm Emanuel floated for Transportation secretary

Rahm Emanuel. Photo: Joshua Lott for The Washington Post via Getty Images

President-elect Biden is strongly considering Rahm Emanuel to run the Department of Transportation, weighing the former Chicago mayor’s experience on infrastructure spending against concerns from progressives over his policing record.

Why it matters: The DOT could effectively become the new Commerce Department, as infrastructure spending, smart cities construction and the rollout of drone-delivery programs take on increasing economic weight.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden turns to experienced hands for White House economic team

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Joe Biden plans to announce Cecilia Rouse and Brian Deese as part of his economic team and Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: These are experienced hands. Unveiling a diverse group of advisers also may draw attention away from a selection of Deese to run the National Economic Council. Some progressives have criticized his work at BlackRock, the world's largest asset management firm.

Biden taps former Obama communications director for press secretary

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Jen Psaki, who previously served as Obama's communications director, will serve as President-elect Joe Biden's press secretary, the transition team announced Sunday.

The big picture: All of the top aides in Biden's communication staff will be women, per the Washington Post, which first reported Psaki's appointment.