Ryan Melsert, formerly Tesla Staff Chemical Engineer and now Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at American Battery Metals Corporations (ABML), recently gave an interview on the show Compound Interests on YouTube. Compound Interests is hosted by Market Rebellion. Although the video includes a lot more than just Ryan’s experience at Tesla, one interesting thing he shared is how he helped design Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada and how his work at Tesla has impacted his life and led to where he is now.
Before diving into how he got to help design Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, Ryan explained his background, which is in chemical and mechanical engineering and thermal systems design.
“About 10 years ago, I was working at a renewable energy research institute in North Carolina, and it was a great platform where it was really agnostic to which type of renewable energy technology was developed, but the platform really enabled fundamental design at the whiteboarding level.”
He noted that in development laboratories, his team built very small-scale samples of systems, larger piloting space, and also very large demonstration-scale projects.
“We had this big 30,000 square feet 70-foot tall bay — we would build these, you know, pre-commercial systems. And within that infrastructure, I was fortunate enough to win a handful of government and private industry grants and awards there. And one of them was for new methods of extracting lithium from wastewater and geothermal brines, specifically within the US. So, that was a 2-year project I was able to bring on some partners and was specifically engineering and synthesizing these new types of select absorbance to extract lithium, and the type of geothermal resource I was looking at was actually in northern Nevada.”
Building Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory
Ryan pointed out that he’d been in that area since 2015 and had been following Tesla as a company during its early stages.
“They reached out in early 2015 really because this battery Gigafactory outside of Reno had been announced but it really hadn’t even gone through a formal groundbreaking.”
He described it as just an idea and a patch of dirt. At the time, Tesla had hired a large, outside engineering company to build the Gigafactory, which came up with a safe and standard design and pointed out how they could move forward. Tesla’s leadership didn’t like the plan.
“And the Tesla leadership looked at it and hated it. They said this is too conventional, this is too safe, this is just, you know, kind of cookie cutter. And they said instead, we’re going to license ourselves as our own general contractor. We’re going to build our own EPC and engineering procurement construction team in-house and we’re going to design this whole facility from the ground up. The building itself, the layout of the equipment, the very large utility systems, the routing of instruments — absolutely everything. So, there were 10–15 of us brought on in that first wave back in the spring of 2015. We sat in one trailer out in the Nevada desert and started designing absolutely every aspect of the factory.”
For about two years, Ryan worked with Tesla on building its Gigafactory in Nevada. He described it as the full life cycle, starting with a design on a blank page, moving into rigorous modeling of how the components could work together, then on to working with vendors to manufacture the large components and deliver and install them. Then they moved into the commissioning process, bringing what was just a design on a whiteboard a few months earlier to life.
“It was a very empowering process to go through that. And for the cell manufacturing side, many people see these very large buildings — you know, Gigafactory is extremely large, is very tangible — but when you actually look at specific manufacturing operations, what’s received in those types of buildings are very refined powders and materials that are then assembled into cells. So, going from powders to slurries to coated electrodes to dried systems to press and cut electrodes to rolls to cells to modules to packs — that whole manufacturing supply chain happens in that one building.
“And being shoulder deep in every step of that process for years really gave me and my team a very brief fundamental understanding about how batteries are manufactured. All the things that need to go right to manufacture a cell, and even more importantly are all the ways it can go wrong. What are the physics-based mechanisms for how every stage of that manufacturing process can fail and not work correctly? So now, years down the road, we’re using all of those first-hand experiences in this lithium-ion battery recycling system to essentially make these battery cells fall apart; to make them fail through all of the mechanisms we were trying to avoid during the manufacturing process for several years.”
Ryan’s Experience With Tesla’s Research & Development Division
Another topic covered by Ryan in the interview was how unclean battery recycling can get. He spoke of the misconception that recycling is inherently clean. He noted that to design a process that has low environmental impact does take effort. The reverse manufacturing process, which he had just described, was what he worked on during his first two years at Tesla.
“And that really is how we take these very large packs and modules that are still electrically charged; how we’re able to process them and how we separate and sort out the components. But then at the end, once you’ve sold many of those, you know, scrap metals — the copper, the aluminum, the steel, many types of mixed plastics — what’s left over is this essentially, you know, a high solids slurry or a filter cake like you just mentioned — usually referred to as a black mass — containing large amounts of valuable metals and large amounts of very low-value materials.
“So, my third and fourth years at Tesla, again after really getting the Gigafactory up and stable, I was able to move over into the R&D division and formed a new group within the R&D set. And I ended up calling it the battery cell material processing group. So at Gigafactory, like I mentioned, you really do receive these refined cathode and anode powders into the building. You don’t really get involved much upstream of that. And when you look at actually assembling the battery cell itself, only about one-quarter of the total cost is the manufacturing.
“So, with Gigafactory as an example, about three-quarters of the cost of manufacturing and battery cell are spent really at the loading dock. buying those highly refined materials to just come into the factory and then be assembled. So that third and fourth year in the group, I formed an R&D division, I was able to go out and hire seven or eight R&D engineers, mostly Ph.D. chemical mechanical engineers. We were able to build our own wet chemistry development lab within the company. And instead of just buying those highly refined materials from the market, we started receiving raw ore samples — raw brines — from different sites throughout the world. These were undeveloped mining sites where they had large amounts of lithium and cobalt and nickel bearing material, but, to date, those elements weren’t being harvested.”
This is just a short (well, sort of long) preview of the actual interview Ryan gave in Compound Interests. I found it pretty fascinating to see the Gigafactory in Nevada from his perspective. His interview gives all of us a look at Tesla’s innovation from the inside, kind of — from the inside of a mind of an engineer and how that engineer helped bring Gigafactory 1 to life.
You can watch the full interview here.