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GM Triples Size Of Its Michigan Electric Vehicle Battery Laboratory (CT Exclusive)

General Motors yesterday unveiled a $20 million, 50,000-square foot expansion to its Michigan electric vehicle battery laboratory, making it the biggest lab in North America owned and operated by an auto manufacturer.

General Motors (GM) has long been a trailblazer in vehicle electrification technology, but a new research and development laboratory may drive it forward into the next generation of electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

GM yesterday unveiled a massive expansion of its Global Battery Systems Laboratory at the GM Technical Center outside Detroit, tripling the facility’s size and making it the largest battery lab in North America owned and operated by an auto manufacturer.

The $20 million, 50,000 square-foot expansion increases the size of the facility to 85,000 square feet and adds a host of new technical and material testing capabilities that could unlock the full potential of electric vehicle battery performance and range.

(Full disclosure — while GM sponsored my trip to tour the facility, it had no involvement in the editorial process of this post)

Building A Better Electric Vehicle Battery

The Global Battery Systems Laboratory opened in 2009, and has been the home for testing and validating battery cells and battery packs for all of GM’s electrified vehicles, including the Chevy Volt, the Cadillac ELR, and the brand-new Chevy Spark EV.

Researchers have already completed 2.5 million hours of battery testing and developed breakthroughs like system updates that added three miles of EV range to the 2013 Volt, but that’s all old news compared to the new testing capabilities.

To start, the new expansion has increased the number of pack-level test channels from 64 to 112 and cell-level test channels from 96 to 120. It’s also added dedicated equipment for testing future technologies like charger and cord set systems, increased the capacity to build battery packs for new vehicle development programs, and will serve as the hub for validation and testing for all battery systems designed for GM vehicles around the world.

By combining advanced testing and battery performance analytical capabilities at one location, GM’s engineers can run simulations and determine how a battery’s design will perform in various temperatures while new vehicles are being developed to streamline vehicle production. Small-scale welding, mock-up, and assembly stations also allow engineers to build prototype battery packs and test experimental designs.

Limiting Impacts Of Heat, Cold, And Vibrations

But beyond testing battery designs, the GM facility also focuses on understanding two major environmental factors that can limit battery performance -– temperature and road vibrations.

One expansive test room features climate chambers that can replicate any environment on Earth from minus 40 to plus 80 degrees Celsius, and 0-100% relative humidity, for up to 40 battery packs at one time. Nearby battery cyclers rapidly charge and discharge battery packs to simulate 10 years of average use in roughly 2 years of test time.

Two other test rooms features “shaker tables” that mimic how vibrations from various real-world road surfaces impact battery pack behavior over a vehicle’s lifetime. GM’s battery lab is the only one in the country with shaker tables that combine vibration testing with a thermal chamber, chiller, and a battery cycler to test how extreme temperature and power discharges can exacerbate driving wear-and-tear.

Toward A Next-Generation Breakthrough

GM Volt and EV1 battery packs

GM Volt and EV1 battery packs photo courtesy of Steve Fecht/GM

From predicting how fast a vehicle can accelerate, to how much range a battery will provide, to how long the battery will perform before wearing down, GM’s battery lab is all about building the best EV battery.

“In the past four years, the competitive landscape in the electrification space has grown exponentially,” said Doug Parks, GM’s vice president for global products. “This additional real estate is filled with new capability that will help us improve speed to market for our next generation of battery systems.”

While all the research and testing facilities promise battery breakthroughs, the lab’s promise is best shown not by advanced machines, but by a simple side-by-side display of the Chevy Volt and EV-1 battery packs.

Considering how much smaller and more powerful GM was able to make its batteries from one vehicle generation to another, the potential future breakthroughs that make an EV-powered future a reality for drivers worldwide seem nearly limitless.

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Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.


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