GM Battery Innovation Center: More Range, Lower Cost

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We know that General Motors is building two battery factories — one in Michigan, one in Tennessee — with partner LG Energy Solution. Those facilities will be manufacturing the Ultium battery cells that will power the new Hummer, the Cadillac Lyriq, and the upcoming electric pickup trucks from Chevrolet and GMC.

Some naysayers may carp that GM and LG are not using the most current battery technologies and chemistries. Tesla and many other companies are transitioning to LFP batteries which have a little less energy density but cost less and don’t catch fire the way ordinary lithium-ion batteries do. If that’s what you are concerned about, take heart.

GM has announced it is building a new 300,000-square-foot battery innovation center near its 710-acre Technical Center in southeast Michigan. According to The Verge, it expects the improvements in battery technology discovered there will drive down the cost of EV batteries and permit future electric cars to travel up to 600 miles on a single charge. Sweet! Using today’s Ultium battery, the furthest an EV from General Motors can drive is around 400 miles.

The new facility will be named the Wallace Battery Innovation Center after Bill Wallace, a battery engineer who led the team that designed and released the battery systems for the first and second generation Chevy Volt, the Malibu Hybrid, and the Bolt EV. GM declined to tell The Verge how much the new facility will cost, saying only it will be in the rage of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The Battery Innovation Center will be “one of the only ones in North America that can use large format prototype cells, up to a meter wide or even wider than that, with uniform stacked electrodes,” says Ken Morris, vice president for electric and autonomous vehicles at GM. He adds the goal is to produce batteries with an energy density of “up to 1,200 watt-hours per liter, and that means that you can easily have a 500 or a 600 mile vehicle on a single charge that’s possible, creating a new reality for our customers.” The Verge notes that some battery experts are skeptical of those claims.

When the Ultium battery was first announced, GM said it would design them to be large format pouch cells rather than the cylindrical cells used by Tesla and many other automakers. This enables them to be stacked vertically or horizontally inside the battery pack. “With these high-energy-density, low-cost vehicles, we really think we can have a better package that’s less mass, better for the vehicle, better for the customer, and it can be the reality as quickly as we can through the Wallace Innovation Center,” Morris says.

The Wallace Center is being set up to develop future batteries that will use a different chemistry than the current Ultium lithium-ion battery cells. “The Wallace Center is going to be a co-location of development engineers, research engineers, and manufacturing engineers, where we’re going to accelerate this next generation — technology like lithium metal or pure silicon anodes, even solid-state batteries,” Morris says.

The Battery Innovation Center will not manufacture batteries, but will have pilot assembly lines so the company can experiment with different production methods. Other projects will include intellectual property that’s being developed under a joint venture between GM and SolidEnergy Systems, an MIT spin-off that is focused on improving energy density in lithium-ion batteries.

Squint a little at the photo at the top of this story and you will see a smattering of electric vehicles that hint at the direction GM is going as it ramps up its EV offerings. Most of them appear to be Hummers, but there are others that could be the electric Silverado, a sedan or two, and a few SUVs. Will they be enough to keep GM in the game? Time will tell.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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