Tesla Gigafactory Battery Tech Risk Is A Myth

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It is no secret that Tesla’s Gigafactory represents an important advantage in lowering battery cell costs and supplying battery cells for storage and electric vehicles. But its a myth that factory investment ties Tesla to one lithium battery technology. In fact, we know Tesla already produces both NCA and NMC cells at the Gigafactory, but even other tech (like solid-state batteries) is compatible with existing production equipment.

Tesla is ahead in battery technology. But even if battery technology shifts, they are still ahead in production. They have much of the world’s battery production capacity, and it can easily be shifted to newer tech.

Straubel has been quoted as saying, “The Model 3 alone, when it’s at half a million vehicles per year, will use the world’s entire lithium-ion battery supply.” (That means “the world’s entire lithium-ion battery supply” at the time of the statement, not at the point when the Model 3 is at half a million vehicles a year, of course.)

That supply will come from the Gigafactory. It’s a myth that German car companies are avoiding investing in battery factories because of the risk of technology change. There is no risk in developing factory capacity now, except if you don’t have a compelling EV or compelling storage products to sell.

But legacy automakers don’t understand the concept of owning the battery factory. To them, batteries are commodities, not a key core competency vital to business. Thats a crucial mistake.

BMW is in fact going with 811 NMC from LG Chem in its upcoming products, which lowers cobalt considerably compared to 111, but not as low as Tesla’s batteries. Apparently, Tesla has lowered cobalt even more and is aiming for no-cobalt batteries.

Existing NMC factories produce 622. Switching to 811 is not major manufacturing issue, but deals with the usual product and production risks.

In fact, VW, BMW, Toyota, and Honda are taking risk by gambling on solid state. An approach attempting to leapfrog existing battery tech has risks if things don’t pan out, and it may be a sign that competitors are waving a white flag, giving up on competing with existing tech.

While this approach may have some validity, tech risks are unrelated to factory development. The factory machinery and process for making lithium-ion batteries is the same. Copper and aluminum sheets are coated with metal oxides and graphite, in a process similar to the one used to make audio tape, but with the backing being copper and aluminum instead of acetate. A binder is used to stick the materials. They are applied in slurry, then dried. The sheets are cut, a separator is sandwiched in between, and they are packaged in various ways. The electrolyte is then added.

Different cathodes, anodes, separators, and electrolytes are in constant development by battery companies and chemical companies. BASF and 3M are some of the suppliers. They know their products must target existing factory machinery. For example, the process doesn’t change that much if lithium metal is used. Its a different electrolyte, cathode, and separator. But it still attaches materials to conductive sheets. There are some differences, but the entire process is not new or different. There might be some disruption, but it is minimal. Solid Power even touts compatibility with existing production as an advantage.

“The electrolyte is applied between a lithium metal anode and an iron disulfide cathode in a manufacturing process that could be run on existing battery lines, Campbell says.”

The news from Chemical & Engineering News goes on: “Despite the attention solid-state batteries are receiving, their commercial viability is ‘not clear,’ maintains M. Stanley Whittingham, a chemist who has been at the forefront of lithium-ion battery development for over 40 years.”

While Tesla expands Gigafactory production, other companies are searching for battery cells from outside suppliers to expand electric vehicle volume. Meanwhile, if solid state technology works out, Tesla can implement it in existing lines reasonably readily. Which approach sounds riskier?

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Christopher Arcus

has studied wind, electric vehicles, and environmental issues. An electrical engineer familiar with power and electronics, he has participated in the Automotive X Prize contest. He is an avid writer, specializing in electric vehicles, batteries, and wind energy.

Christopher Arcus has 26 posts and counting. See all posts by Christopher Arcus