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JB Straubel, Celina Mikolajczak, & Heiko Urtel Talk Batteries With Stanford Energy Professors

Stanford Energy recently hosted its StorageX International Symposium Industrial Panel virtually. The panel included top battery experts, such as JB Straubel, one of the co-founders at Tesla who left after years as CTO to start Redwood Materials; Celina Mikolajczak of Panasonic; and Heiko Urtel of BASF.

Stanford Energy recently hosted its StorageX International Symposium Industrial Panel virtually. The panel included top battery experts, such as JB Straubel, one of the co-founders at Tesla who left after years as CTO to start Redwood Materials; Celina Mikolajczak of Panasonic; and Heiko Urtel of BASF.

Professors of Materials Science and Engineering Will Chueh and Yi Cui moderated the panel, which is a bi-weekly panel. The StorageX Symposium was launched last year at Stanford. The heavy focus is on batteries. The event is almost two hours long and you can watch it in the video below. Below are some quick notes from the video.

BASF’s Role in EV Transition

Urtel spoke about some of the challenges that BASF and the industry were taking on to make e-mobility a more viable technology for consumers. BASF, which is a key supplier to the global automotive industry, could be facing a shrinking market.

“For a company like BASF, it’s more than natural to invest in battery material systems.” Investing in something — a new technology — that is emerging and causing the market to shrink compensates for the shrinking automotive market overall. BASF, which has roots in chemistry, has other segments that are benefitting from the e-mobility trend. One example Urtel cited was supplying the right plastics and polymers that are used in insulating the cables and electronics.

One thing BASF is putting its focus on is cathode active materials, which are nickel, cobalt, and manganese types or nickel cobalt aluminum oxides. These are used to coat the cathodes of the battery. “Those materials have a really tremendous impact on the cost, on the weight, on the range and the safety of your battery cell,” he said, while adding that it has significant leverage on the overall performance of the car in the end.

Urtel also spoke of the importance of knowing that the value chain starts with the mining operations. For the cathode materials BASF is producing, BASF wants to make sure it is building up a reliable supply chain. What’s more important than this is a sustainable value chain. “All our metal providers are audited and we are really doing special checks with regard to sustainability from social, economic, and eco-friendly perspective to make sure that we do this in the most sustainable way.”

Some of the challenges Urtel mentioned include:

  • Challenge of cathode active material (CAM) calcination.
  • CAM mass production challenges, numbering up vs scaling up.
  • New approaches to low-cost CAM.

Urtel spoke more about each of the challenges as well, which you can watch here.

Panasonic’s History of Cell Making & Current Volume

Celina Mikolajczak wanted to show what production of cells, such as those produced at the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, looked like and what it really means. “This factory is immense. It produces millions of cells every day,” she said. She noted that when she started in the industry around 20 years ago, a factory was pretty amazing if it could produce a million cells a month or even five million cells a month. “We produce those kind of numbers in days.” The Gigafactory sits at around 30% of its original planned footprint and Panasonic occupies about two-thirds of that footprint. “Inside there, we’ve achieved about 35-gigawatt hours per year production or more,” Mikolajczak said.

Looking at the image she provided in the video, one would assume it’s small, but she pointed out that you are essentially looking at a six-story factory that is divided into three floors. Mikolajczak also wanted to share a sense of the timeline for the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. “We started groundbreaking in 2014. Panasonic started equipment installation at the very end of 2015 and the first cell mass production at the very beginning of 2017. That was on a single line, and as construction continued, we were producing cells while the factory was being constructed around us.” These, of course, had several challenges, but Panasonic kept adding lines and achieved a 100 million cell shipment in 2018.

“A hundred million cells is a big milestone,” Mikolajczak noted, and pointed out that for normal factories, this could be many years worth of production. “This was done within about a year,” she said. “The first billionth cell was shipped in February 2019, and despite Covid, we shipped our three billionth cell in August of this year, which gives a sense of how many cells are produced and how big this factory actually has to be to do that.”

Mikolajczak explained the deeper history of Panasonic as well. “A hundred years ago, Panasonic was making little bicycle lamps with the batteries to power them,” Mikolajczak said, while adding that today’s lithium-ion cells are the latest in a long line of batteries that Panasonic has produced, in reasonably high volumes. “You don’t have to go and reinvent everything when you go and build something like the Gigafactory. You evolve designs and you evolve them from previous chemistries.” You can watch Mikolajczak’s full presentation in the panel here.

JB Straubel

Straubel, who spent most of his career as Tesla’s chief technology officer (CTO), spoke about Tesla and a new focus that it needed to look at, and why that focus was so important that he left to start a new company that is completely focusing on that initiative. That focus is battery recycling.

“It was an amazing adventure watching how fast the EV, the e-mobility market has developed. I think it’s hard to even remember these times 15 years ago when electric vehicles were not even close to mainstream, and really, most people didn’t expect that they would take on any significant market share. It was more focused on fuel cells and HEV. So, it’s pretty amazing, I think, and really wonderful to see the fact that sustainability and e-mobility have accelerated to the extent it has. But for me, through that whole time, it was becoming increasingly clear that we kept moving the challenges further upstream. The scale of the entire automotive industry and the scale of the energy industry to that extent as well needed to support that whole change.”

Straubel shared that, way back when he was in engineering school, he was lamenting over how it felt as if all of the big innovations had already happened and that we kind of missed the time of the Edisons, Nikola Teslas, Daimlers, or Fords of the world, who got to invent entire industrial ecosystems. “It turns out that we are almost living in exactly the same sort of time in this generation of engineers and scientists and industrialists who get to architect a whole new industrial system for sustainability,” he said.

Speaking about the upstream challenges, Straubel said: “One way to look at that is seeing the incredible focus shifting toward the cost of the materials that go into the products.” He touched upon the changes in the supply chain for an EV compared to a fossil fuel vehicle and noted that the change points directly toward the battery. Inside the battery, a lot of that change goes into the active materials that make up the battery. Straubel also pointed out that the costs of these materials are still pretty high, even though factories have been able to reduce the assembly costs of materials along with the costs of manufacturing the labor and energy. However, the problem is still pushed toward the bill of materials, and even into the commodities that go into the fundamentally engineered materials.

“For me, seeing that trend was really exciting and interesting but also laid out a pretty clear challenge for where I was excited to focus. Personally, I’d say I’m 50% entrepreneur and 50% engineer/inventor and just really love building teams, building technologies, and innovation. Tesla has grown to such an amazing scale — it’s incredible to see — but it is needing a little bit of a different focus, especially in some of the leadership at the top levels. For me, I’m actually having an incredibly fun time and am really enjoying building a new small company — building the foundation for a technology for something that I see as inevitable in the future that we have to put more focus on.”

Straubel explained the mission of Redwood as being three-fold:

  1.  Appropriate disposal avoidance of all the negative that does or could happen when a battery reaches the end of its life and it’s not handled appropriately. “That was a challenge we struggled with at Tesla,” said Straubel.
  2. Materials recovery and reprocessing. This is taking valuable raw materials and both inventing and improving the ways to most efficiently recover and move them directly back into the right quality and consistency of compounds that can be reintroduced to the supply chain.
  3. Merging the first two together. This means that Redwood is focused on finding ways to more efficiently and economically go from an old battery to the components that make up a new battery. “Today, this is very siloed and very discreet and people break this into many different companies and processes and it’s also scattered all around the world in a very inefficient way. These materials take an incredible journey physically throughout their lifetime.”

Straubel described the journey of the materials that make up a battery. Starting from where they are mined, they then travel to where they are refined, then made into cells, then put into an EV, and then eventually recycled. “There’s a great opportunity to vertically integrate some of that — to compress that physical supply chain and to overlap some of the chemical and manufacturing processes to save a great deal of cost and repackaging efforts where something is done and then undone.” You can watch Straubel’s full presentation in the panel here.

Final Thoughts

After each of the panelists spoke, there was around an hour-long discussion. One of the topics mentioned in the discussion was the importance of scaling. Professor Cui noted that when he first started at Stanford 15 years ago, Tesla was still a startup and scaling wasn’t really that much of a topic back then. He pointed out that knowing how to scale is already a huge innovation.

The first question centered around the concept of scaling. “We are doing scaling so fast it’s like running really, really fast — 100-meter dash — but at the same time, you still need to do innovation, scaling and doing your technology innovation. If you think about 100-meter dash, it’s like you’re running so fast, but at the same time, you’re changing the style of how you run. That’s very hard,” Professor Cui said before asking them to share scaling and innovation along the way — the battery materials, the new recipe being perfected, and the cell manufacturing. “How do we think about innovation and scaling at the same time?”

“The think about scaling and innovation, when you’re scaling manufacturing systems, it’s helpful if you’re actually working on those production lines,” Mikolajczak said, while adding that her engineers spend quite a bit of time on those production lines. “You have to be there in the space. When you are there in the space, you realize what’s difficult. It’s not obvious.”

The example she gave was something as simple as cleaning the electrolyte-filling machine. “Turns out electrolyte, a salt inside a solvent, looks perfect and good except that once you run a filling machine for a few days, you find all the salt crystallization on all the different components. If you’ve got crystallized salt on all your components, you’re not going to fill very effectively. The seals that you’re using to fill are going to be bad and so forth, so you’ll run into problems. So you have to clean that machine. This means that someone puts on a full power purifying respirator — it’s this whole hood — climbs into the machine, starts pulling things apart, and then having to clean the stuff. And you realize actually if I’m going to scale, I need to automate the cleaning process.”

You can view the full panel discussion here.

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Johnna owns less than one share of $TSLA currently and supports Tesla's mission. She also gardens, collects interesting minerals and can be found on TikTok


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