Excedrin must be the drug of choice in the boardrooms of legacy automakers these days. Just when it seems like they are about to catch up with Tesla, the Silicon Valley upstart pulls ahead with stunning new technologies that leave them gasping in its wake. The company’s Autopilot may be inappropriately named, but there is little question it is light years ahead of the competition. Tesla battery technology has always been the industry standard in terms of capability and cost, but according to Reuters, it is about to take a giant leap forward.
The key to the advancement is the ongoing research conducted by Jeff Dahn at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dahn and his band of merry pranksters have cooked up a host of new advances in battery technology. The principal contribution from the Dahn team is said to be chemical additives, materials and coatings that will reduce internal stress and enable batteries to store more energy for longer periods, sources tell Reuters.
But equally important is a new alliance between Tesla and Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL) that is making those advances commercially viable while promoting new cell-to-pack technology that reduces the size, weight, and cooling requirements for EV battery packs. The payoff is longer cell life and lower costs. The latter is critical because the lower the cost of batteries, the more competitive electric cars will be with conventional gasoline powered and hybrid models.
In an exclusive report, Reuters claims Musk put together a team of three engineers to work with CATL. That collaboration has resulted in new low cobalt or zero cobalt batteries that have a higher energy density and storage capacity than conventional lithium-ion batteries. There are whispers not of a “million mile battery” but rather batteries that could last for many millions of miles. But the best news is, the new products are significantly less expensive. CATL’s lithium-iron-phosphate battery packs cost less than $80 per kWh, with the cost of the battery cells below $60/kWh, sources tell Reuters.
It is believed those batteries will appear first in Tesla Model 3 sedans manufactured at the Tesla factory in Shanghai. Over time, those batteries may become available in other Tesla products manufactured in the US and at the new factory under construction near Berlin, Germany.
CATL is also said to be working on low-cobalt NMC battery packs that cost about $100 per kWh. That is the magic number that industry analysts have said for years is the point battery prices have to get to in order for electric cars to be price competitive with conventional cars up front. To add some perspective, when General Motors announced its new Ultium battery recently, it said it hopes to get the cost of its batteries below $100 per kWh by 2025. That suggests Tesla has a 5 year lead on the rest of the industry.
“We’ve got to really make sure we get a very steep ramp in battery production and continue to improve the cost per kilowatt-hour of the batteries — this is very fundamental and extremely difficult,” Musk told investors during the Q4 earnings call in January. “We’ve got to scale battery production to crazy levels that people cannot even fathom today.” How crazy is crazy? During the most recent earnings call, Musk hinted at new “terafactories” that would be 30 times bigger than the already huge Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada. Those factories would be highly automated in an effort to reduce battery cost even further. Incidentally, our own Chanan Bos wrote about Tesla transitioning to terafactories in September 2018 — talk about foresight.
Tesla doesn’t just produce batteries for electric vehicles, however. It is also a major player in the market for grid-scale electricity storage. Here’s something new coming out of these new battery rumors. Those sources tell Reuters the company foresees connecting the batteries in its cars to the grid to act as virtual power plants. They say Tesla’s goal is to achieve the status of a power company, competing with such traditional energy providers. We saw a hint about this recently when Tesla applied to the UK government for a license to be a power producer.
Up to this point, Tesla has never expressed an interest in vehicle-to-grid technology. In fact, several years ago, former CTO JB Straubel said the company had looked into it but decided it didn’t quite make sense. Things change and technology keeps moving forward. Perhaps the new LFP cells are more suitable to V2G use? We don’t know but look forward to Tesla’s Battery Day scheduled for later this month.
The Reuters report also claims Tesla is continuing to ramp up its battery recycling capabilities through its Redwood Materials affiliate now headed by JB Straubel. Much of the nickel, cobalt, and lithium contained in battery cells can be recaptured and reused to make new batteries. That will not only reduce the amount of hazardous waste associated with electric vehicles but also help reduce the effective cost of new batteries. Second life use of automotive batteries for energy storage is also a technology Tesla is working on.
Tesla declined to comment on the Reuters report, which gives us one more good reason to look forward to Battery Day, which now appears to be pushed back to sometime in June according to the most recent tweet from Elon.
We’re going to have to push out the date or attendance will be very low. Maybe do in two parts: webcast next month & in-person event a few months later?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 15, 2020
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