Update from mid-June 2023: GM and Samsung SDI have actually chosen St. Joseph County, Indiana, for the location of this $3 billion battery factory. The grand opening of the factory is planned for 2026. (We don’t know the date yet.) The factory is expected to create 1,700 manufacturing jobs in Indiana.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!” my old Irish grandmother liked to say. The executives in the C Suite at General Motors apparently had an old Irish grandmother as well. Since GM first dipped a toe into the world of electric vehicles, it has leaned heavily on LG Chem — now known as LG Energy Solution — to supply it with batteries and much more. LG supplied the batteries for the Chevy Bolt, but also much of the interior. Things were going swimmingly for the two companies until the pesky battery fire schlamozzle, which put the future of the Bolt and its first cousin, the Bolt EUV, in doubt for a while. According to rumors, that fiasco cost LG nearly a billion dollars.
Nevertheless, the two companies continued to move forward into the EV future together, with GM trumpeting claims about the superiority of its Ultium battery technology which used pouch cells supplied by LGES. Then at the start of this year, cracks began to appear in the façade of corporate harmony. GM suddenly announced that pouch cells were out and cylindrical 4680 battery cells — a format pioneered by Tesla — were in. GM at the time refused to specify just exactly who would supply them.
My colleague Kyle Field introduced CleanTechnica readers to the Tesla 4680 battery cell in September of 2020. He wrote that the new form factor eliminates the tabs, increases energy density, maintains similar thermal characteristics of smaller cells, improves the power-to-weight ratio, streamlines manufacturing, and lowers cost.
General Motors Chooses A Different Path
Until the 4680 battery news, GM was planning a fourth battery US battery factory with LGES, but suddenly, reports from the media in South Korea hinted that The General had put those plans on hold and was casting about for a new battery partner. Now, GM and Samsung SDI have announced they will build that fourth US factory together.
GM has yet to make a formal announcement about the new factory and Samsung SDI has deflected press inquiries, but Reuters says the two are expected to sign an agreement on Wednesday to build the factory in Michigan, according to a report by Korean media source Yonhap. Samsung SDI is reviewing various ways to cooperate with multiple automakers, but cannot comment on any details, a Samsung SDI official told Reuters.
The Korea Herald, citing unnamed industry sources, reports the two sides are undergoing last minute negotiations for details in the agreement such as the production volume of the joint EV battery factory, the investment method and the location of the plant. Those don’t sound like details to us, but apparently the agreement to create an alliance between the two companies is the important part of the report.
The companies are projected to break ground for the joint factory at the end of this year and it is expected to start producing prismatic and cylindrical battery cells in 2026. The capacity of the jointly owned factory is estimated to be between 30 and 50 gigawatt-hours per year. 50 GWh is enough to produce about 600,000 electric vehicles annually. The cost of the new factory is said to be approximately $3.5 billion.
The GM partnership is Samsung SDI’s second joint project in North America after the Korean battery maker announced a plan to build a $2.5 billion battery plant in Indiana with Stellantis last May. The Indiana factory is expected to begin operation in the first quarter of 2025 with an annual production capacity of 23 GWh.
The Korea Herald says this latest partnership between General Motors and Samsung SDI demonstrates two industry trends. Battery makers don’t want to be locked in to only a few customers and vehicle manufacturers don’t want to be dependent on just one battery supplier. All of this activity, of course, is being supercharged by the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides significant incentives to battery manufacturers if they build batteries in the United States if they use battery materials and components sourced from approved countries — i.e. not China.
LG Energy Solution, Korea’s leading battery maker by sales volume, has joined hands with GM, Stellantis, Honda, Hyundai Motor Group, and Ford, while Samsung SDI now has partnerships with Stellantis and GM. Another Korean battery maker, SK On, is collaborating with Ford and Hyundai Motor Group.
The Cell Format Debate
The shape and size of cylindrical battery cells have a direct effect on packaging and cooling — two factors of vital concern to car companies. Cells with larger diameters have more spaces in between each one. That may lower the energy density of a battery pack on a volumetric basis, but it may also allow for better cooling between individual cells. But if those larger cells are cheaper to manufacture, an automaker may prefer them even if they are not the optimum shape and size for squeezing as many cells as possible into a pack.
In the final analysis, it’s what’s inside the cell that counts. There are as many cell chemistries as there are battery manufacturers. Tesla pretty much invented the 4680 battery cell format, but is experimenting with different chemistries and production techniques to find the perfect combination of low costs, long life, fast charging, good cold weather performance, and high energy density. It’s an ongoing process that will continue for decades to come, just as internal combustion engine technology has evolved over the past century. Both General Motors and BMW made inline 6-cylinder engines, but they were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to power and refinement.
A year ago, CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer, introduced its Kirin battery pack, which Wu Kai, chief scientist for CATL, said has 13% more power than a battery pack using 4680 cells. It’s not that the individual battery cells are more powerful, it’s that CATL’s third generation cell-to-pack technology squeezes more power into the same space occupied by a 4680 battery pack.
The secret is in the packaging, not a new breakthrough in battery chemistry. Wu said the Kirin battery leads the industry in system weight, energy density, and volumetric energy density. “We have analyzed the range distribution of passenger cars in the last three years and found that consumers’ quest for long range is still a trend,” he added.
The jockeying and jostling between battery manufacturers and automakers will be constant as the EV revolution moves forward. Spats between battery companies will be common as well as each seeks to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. In 2021, LG Chem (as it was known then) locked horns with SK Innovation over alleged trade infractions. The two sides ultimately settled their differences, with SKI agreeing to pay a sum to LG that was more or less equal to the sum LG agreed to pay to GM. In the end, there is just too much money to be made to get sidetracked by petty disputes. A billion paid over here is a pittance compared to the billions to be made over there.
The new arrangement between General Motors and Sansung SDI signals that no one wants to get caught with all their eggs in one basket. My grandmother would agree.
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