Innovation, acquisitions driving lower battery costs showcased at Tesla’s Battery Day

From its headquarters in Fremont, California the market leading EV-maker debuted its latest advancements with Canadian talent and opportunities showcased throughout

It was a packed parking lot as Team Tesla took the stage earlier this week for the electric vehicle manufacturer’s much-anticipated and socially distanced Battery Day event. True to form, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk had some some bold predictions — for the future of the company, battery technology and the EV industry overall.

From mining to body moulds, Tesla is now driving to near-full vertical integration of their value chain with potentially industry-changing implications.

“We have a plan to halve the cost per kilowatt hour,” announced Drew Baglino, Tesla’s senior vice-president of engineering and co-presenter with Musk.

“Tesla is going to be hell-bent on becoming the best manufacturer on earth,” added Musk. “Heads and shoulders above anyone else.”

“Tesla basically said we can get close to $50/kWh without doing anything crazy in the chemistry.”

Chris Burns, CEO, Novonix

Efficiency gains, cost savings

In a five-part plan, the duo broke down Tesla’s roadmap for the near future: cell design, cell factory, anode materials, cathode materials and cell-vehicle integration. The company is projecting with full implementation — which they estimate will take two to three years — there will be a 56-per-cent reduction in cost per kilowatt hour.

The blockbuster announcement comes after years of speculation into what, exactly, the Tesla battery team — including Jeff Dahn, Canadian physics professor and NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair at Dalhousie University — has been working on.

Dahn, while not mentioned in Musk and Baglino’s Battery Day remarks, is a figure of considerable interest not only in the lithium battery sphere, but among Tesla followers. Dahn’s lab operates with near total discretion and aside from a few recent papers and patents very little of the work has been made public.

Prior to Battery Day the overwhelming speculation was that Tesla was going to announce they had achieved a million-mile battery — something Dahn referenced in a footnote of a December 2019 research paper and further discussed in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy in July. But Musk and Baglino threw the crowd a semantic curveball saying research is driving the company towards another objective: more budget-friendly batteries.

“The highlights of Battery Day are Tesla is going to build their own cells, … [it] has reengineered their cell-manufacturing process, new cell design and much lower manufacturing cost in order to enable decreasing that battery pack cost in the vehicle,” says Chris Burns, co-founder of Novonix, a battery testing company in Halifax, N.S., and Tesla’s first scientific employee in Canada. “Tesla basically said we can get close to $50/kWh without doing anything crazy in the chemistry.”

Tesla’s plan leans heavily on its ability to overhaul manufacturing methods that have been “stuck in yesteryear’s technology,” says Burns.

“Tesla is a smaller, more nimble company that’s going to take those risks that deliver the big gains. They are willing to erase the whole board when it comes to the manufacturing process and draw up something that’s going to play out cheaper.”

Hibar deal noted

One of the star players in that process may be Toronto-based Hibar Systems Ltd. Electric Autonomy Canada exclusively reported that Tesla bought the company last October, but until Battery Day, Tesla had not commented on or referenced it.

“They haven’t talked a lot about what they are doing or what Hibar is making for them, but Hibar made, historically, custom automated solutions that can be used in cell manufacturing,” says Burns, who speculates Hibar’s role could be “critical” to Tesla’s streamlined assembly process.

On stage in Fremont, Baglino described Tesla’s cell assembly factories (now at the pilot stage) as “a highway — no city driving” where continuous motion is the only speed. This plays to Hibar’s expertise, as one of the few non-Chinese highly specialized companies focused on high-precision dispensing pumps and filling systems.

“The guys at Tesla basically want to never have the materials stop — just come off one machine and flow right into the next and the next. And that’s how they are going to take out so much cost in the manufacturing process,” said Burns.

“I actually spoke with the CEOs of the biggest mining companies in the world and said, ‘Please make more nickel, this is very important’ ”

Elon Musk

EV-ICE price parity

Currently, it’s estimated Tesla’s cost per kWh hovers near the $115 mark. If it is able to deliver on the 56-per-cent reduction target that would bring costs down to roughly $65/kWh. That, Musk stressed several times, will eliminate the existing price differential between EVs and traditional internal combustion vehicles.

To that end, Musk also spoke of Tesla aiming to produce a $25,000 vehicle in the same three-year timeframe.

Central to their technical breakthroughs, Musk and Baglino revealed, is that Tesla is now close to being able to eliminate whole steps in manufacturing by implementing a “dry process” for making electrodes, thanks to their acquisition of Maxwell Technologies. When optimized, said Baglino, they’ll be able to reduce their factory footprint by a factor 10.

Right now, said Musk, “it does work, but with not a high yield.”

“In the future, all versions of our vehicles will be able to do at least bi-directional power flow for the purposes of energy market participation”

Drew Baglino, SVP, Powertrain and Energy Engineering, Tesla

Vehicle-to-grid downplayed

While the general thrust of what Tesla unveiled had been anticipated, it came as a bit of a surprise when, during a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Musk played down vehicle-to-grid charging opportunities when the new battery technology is deployed in its vehicles.

Instead, he touted another Tesla product, the PowerWall battery storage system — encouraging individuals to “become your own utility” by integrating those and solar panels (which Tesla also makes and sells) into their homes and using the energy generated and stored to power their residence and charge their electric vehicles.

His statement ran contrary to the speculation sparked by Dahn’s recent research paper hailing the potential of a million-mile battery, which would be integral to a V2G network.

This topic also came up in Dahn’s interview in July, in which he remarked: “You’ll sign up with a utility to let them use your car to store and deliver energy within certain limits. In doing that kind of approach you are putting discharge cycles on your car without ever moving. This is why you need a really long-lifetime battery if you want to tie to the grid.”

Baglino expanded somewhat on Musk’s remarks, reiterating that new Tesla vehicles will have bi-directional charging capabilities — a V2G essential — but that it wasn’t a major focus of their plans moving forward.

Canada poised to benefit

Beyond Tesla’s current Canadian ties, Burns says that company’s accomplishments are sure to foster many more opportunities in this country.

Mining and materials are obvious. While Musk stated on Battery Day that there’s enough lithium in Nevada alone to supply all his company’s needs, in the past he has called out for supplies of lithium and nickel — and both are prevalent in many of Canada’s mining regions.

On the value-added side, the fact that Teslas has tapped into Canada’s R&D sector for expertise has given it a major seal of approval. Musk may yet come back for more, but it’s also likely that other OEMs are eyeing Canada’s growing knowledge reservoirs and tech clusters.

As an example, Burns points to existing expertise in the Halifax area with dry particle micro granulation technology (DPMG) a technique developed by Dalhousie and Novonix that can be applied to battery material manufacturing.

Burns says DPMG is Dalhousie and Novonix’s answer to, “exactly what [Tesla] talks about: lower cost cathode manufacturing, direct minerals, no expensive sulphate steps, eliminating waste water, lower operating cost, lower capital cost equipment.”

A made-in-Canada solution or contribution to the next generation of battery manufacturing is an exciting and invigorating prospect for the national sector and the potential is ripe for the taking.

“There is no reason that opportunity couldn’t be built up in Canada … to supply Tesla or others with cathode material where the ore was mined in Canada and the material was processed in Canada with Canadian-built technology,” Burns says.

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