The Science Channel has a new series called Super Factories that focuses on the marvels of modern engineering. The show reveals epic engineering feats. It began this week with the Tesla Gigafactory. Super Factories explores engineering as a new frontier and gives viewers an inside look at the state-of-the-art factories that create the world’s most innovative products at insane speeds.
The show gave a VIP tour of Tesla’s cutting-edge gigafactory in Nevada that builds the batteries for its award-winning electric vehicles. I don’t have cable but was able to watch the video on Vimeo that was posted for those outside the U.S. who can’t access the Science Channel.
Key Points from the Video
Tesla is producing around 500,000 cars per year (2020 target) and the best seller is the Model 3. “Launched in 2017, the Model 3’s sleek design, speed, and technological capabilities are a cut above all its electric vehicle competitors,” the show’s narrators said.
He goes on to talk about Tesla’s induction motor, which is 6 times lighter and 93% more powerful than internal combustion engines (ICEs) that are found in “similar” cars. Dr. Shini Somara, a medical engineer, said, “Like it or not, the internal combustion engine is coming to the end of the road. More and more countries in Europe and Asia are set to ban all base fuels in the next twenty years. The automotive industry has got the message and now most big firms are hard at work designing electric models.”
The Sparks Gigafactory
One major component of the Model 3 is manufactured at the Sparks, Nevada Gigafactory, which the video described as one of the “most technologically advanced factories in the world.” The show dives into the history of Giga Sparks along with its specifications. Gigafactory isn’t just a fancy name, but a description of something that is over one million square feet and produces dozens of gigawatt-hours of batteries a year — and it’s only 30% done.
“Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, believes that in order to keep up with demand and our changing environment, factories must come up with new ways to manufacture products with sustainable energies,” the narrator says. Following that is a short clip of Elon Musk speaking on June 29, 2016, saying, “So I’m really excited about revitalizing manufacturing. I think it needs love and we’re going to give it.” The show also pointed out that once Gigafactory 1 is complete, it will be fully powered by renewable energy sources. The show also talked about how Tesla is using its energy efficiently. Here are some examples:
Excess heat from equipment such as compressors and high-temperature ovens will be able to not only run equipment efficiently but to help keep the factory warm in the colder months.
The north-south axis of the building was designed to maximize the generation of solar energy. The roof will eventually contain 200,000 solar panels. These will expand across 1.8 million square feet of the factory. The location is a key component of the Gigafactory’s ability to use solar energy, as it is located in a desert that gets a large amount of sunlight.
Tesla’s Gigafactory also has a water cooling system that repels extremely low temperatures.
“Because of the way the air is here in Nevada, it’s dry and really hot during the day, but it’s very cool at night. We do have a 10 million gallon water tank out back, and it allows that water to cool down. We use it for air conditioning. A lot of the equipment requires chilled water to operate — to keep it running,” said Lauren Cito, a Tesla employee.
Tesla’s Vice President of Operations, Chris Lister, also spoke in the video. “We really wanted to get to a point where this is going to become a fully net-zero facility leaving zero carbon footprint, creating products that also leave zero carbon footprint.
Although Tesla’s Gigafactory is the perfect setup for any sustainable factory, one of the most exciting things about this factory is not the factory itself, but what it’s creating: lithium-ion batteries that power Tesla’s vehicles.
“Battery technology is one of the most exciting areas of research right now, and all our mobile technology depends on it. To make electric cars a reality, the key was to develop the right battery,” said Andrew Smyth, an aerospace engineer.
Lister demonstrated what the battery cells looked like and explained how they are made, put together, and put into a Model 3 vehicle. “There’s on average 4,000 of these cells in every Model 3 vehicle.” Gigafactory Sparks produces 13 million individual battery cells daily, and the number is growing.
Dr. Zoe Laughlin, a materials scientist, explained what made these batteries so powerful by pointing out the difference between rechargeable batteries and non-rechargeable batteries (such as the batteries in your TV remote.) “The battery is really a metal tube containing reactive elements. It is a rechargeable one. When you charge it, that incoming electricity causes a chemical reaction. And when you want to draw that power out, the chemical reaction is reversed.”
For non-rechargeable batteries, she explained that there is only a one-way reaction. “This is a zinc and magnesium oxide battery, but those batteries we all have in our mobile phones and would be inside electric cars use an entirely different type of material. They are lithium-ion batteries.”
A Team of 7,000 Technicians and Smart Robots
Another thing that makes the Gigafactory unique is that alongside the team of 7,000 technicians who are working to create the batteries are many robots. The automated robots can move materials between workstations faster and lift heavier loads while staying charged for 19 hours.
Some of the robots navigate through the factory using digital maps. Some, like autonomously guided vehicles you can see in the video as well as in CleanTechnica’s video tour of the Tesla seat factory in Fremont (we seem to still be the only media outlet to tour that facility), use floor magnets and internal GPS systems. Andrew Smyth explained that this was another benefit of Tesla’s north-south axis. “This is so it’s easier to plot the routes that the satellite AGVs are going to take,” he said.
Lister expanded on that, saying, “They’re really on a fixed path, so it’s very predictable. They’re going to the same locations, picking up from one location and emptying off at another location. And what it allows us to really do is to have things moving from inventory to line-side all day long without a whole lot of human intervention at all.”
Super Factories also dives into not only the creation of the lithium-ion batteries but the precision it takes to place them in the metal shelves — by humans, not automated hands.
The fact that this factory is creating something that is revolutionizing the auto industry and reshaping how people drive is reason enough to watch, but it’s fascinating to see the inner workings of the production system for the technology at the heart of these cars — their batteries. CleanTechnica is still eager to get its tour of at least one of Tesla’s gigafactories.
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