Tesla’s Battery Day this week promised a new, lower cost electric vehicle, but the real significance of the event was the work being invested in bringing down the cost rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, redefining the supply chain and reducing their environmental impact.
As The Driven covered on Wednesday, Tesla plans to address five factors to reduce costs in order to bring to market an electric vehicle that costs $US25,000 (about $A35,000).
This would be $US10,000 cheaper than the original Standard Range Model 3, which Tesla pulled off the menu (but is reportedly still available if you ask for it) and replaced with the Standard Range Plus Model 3 which sells from $US37,990 in the US and from $A73,900 in Australia.
Using a Tesla Model 3 price estimation calculator, a $US25,000 Tesla electric car made in the US could cost as little as $A46,000 – bringing it in line with the all-electric Hyundai Ioniq and the introductory price of the MG ZS EV.
Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk claims that the developments planned by Tesla reduce battery manufacturing costs by a solid 56 per cent, and deliver an increase in range of 54 per cent.
But will Tesla be able to pull it off?
Musk admitted on Battery Day that it will take Tesla up to three years to achieve the proposed advances in battery manufacture, and that even then it would only be able to reach 3 terawatts capacity in energy storage by 2030 when the world as a whole will actually need more like 20-25 terawatts to wean itself off fossil fuels.
Our experts are Dr. Jake Whitehead, Tritium e-mobility partner and electric vehicle research fellow for the University of Queensland, and Dr. Chris Burns, co-founder of battery testing and research company Novonix and a former Tesla senior battery engineer.
Larger, tabless battery
Whitehead thinks that although Tesla’s proposed battery developments are far from being commercialised, it is great to see a number of different potential pathways to further accelerate the reduction in lithium-ion battery costs, as well as simplify and increase the recycling of batteries.
He adds that the larger form factor battery that Tesla is working on, the so called “Roadrunner” project, will be key to Tesla being able to fit more battery capacity in vehicles.
“The primary motivations for making larger cells is that they are cheaper to manufacture and take up less space at the battery pack level,” he tells The Driven.
“It is the pack level efficiency improvement that is expected to deliver a 16% increase in range – which is significant; but should not be confused with some media reports incorrectly suggesting a 500% increase in energy density.
Burns says the unveiling of a larger battery was unexpected: “To me the biggest surprise was the form factor shown by Tesla, the 4680. I expected Battery Day to focus on their internal cell development and cell-to-pack integration and as well likely discuss their tabless cell design but did not expect it to be in larger cell, rather just the 2170.”
Whitehead thinks that though Tesla has clearly made a leap forward with the larger battery’s tabless design, the company will still need to overcome some hurdles to make it work.
“The larger battery cell is enabled through the tabless cell design which improves thermal management significantly compared to a tab cell as there are multiple electron pathways compared to a single pathway through a traditional tab cell,” he says.
“The tabless design also overcomes a number of other manufacturing disadvantages of tab cells, but they also have there own unique challenges which Tesla is likely still working through.”
Electrodes, anodes and cathodes
Burns says the most important revelation of Battery Day in his opinion was Tesla’s display of innovation in the manufacturing process in an attempt to dramatically reduce pack cost.
“Through efforts to deploy their dry electrode coating and increase factory automation, they are proposing they can reduce 34% of the cost while also significantly decreasing capital investment,” he tells The Driven.
“If they can achieve this it is a huge step in scaling production of lithium-ion cells to support the EV and grid industry.”
But he says that it looks like Tesla still has some work to do to on this process.
“It was referred to as mostly working at pilot scale but seems not without its challenges.,” he says.
“One of the challenges in traditional battery electrode preparation through wet slurry methods is achieving perfect uniformity and distribution of materials in the slurry. I suspect that this is even more challenging in a dry process.
“They are likely still working on how to ensure they have uniform material composition and uniform mass loading of that material while preparing an electrode both of which are absolutely critical to mass production of high quality cells.”
Burns is skeptical, however, that using more silicon in anodes will play out, as there is too much risk for too little gain.
“I do not think that high silicon contents will play a role in Tesla’s short term future from this presentation,” he says.
“Of all the proposed advances they put forward towards a 56% cost reduction, switching to silicon only provided 5% so seems far too high of a risk given the inevitable penalty in lifetime that will come with it.
“I think not addressing the cycle life capability in the presentation means it is still a major issue. There is no doubt that silicon will play a role in the future as the mass loading of silicon in the anode continues to increase from 5-10% now up to maybe 20-30% over the course of this decade, but I do not think we will see pure silicon anodes any time soon in EV (electric vehicles) and ESS (energy storage systems).
“I was listening to Benchmark Minerals webinar today summarizing their take on Battery Day and their team echoed this sentiment that graphite will be the dominant choice for anode materials for the foreseeable future.”
Whitehead says that it is Tesla’s high nickel-no cobalt cathodes for ultra-long haul applications that he is most keen to hear more about.
“It is highly unlikely to be related to the cobalt-free LFP batteries Tesla are using in China, given the low energy density of this chemistry,” he says.
“I am expecting it is an evolution of the current high energy density NCA battery, which already have a relatively low cobalt content, but it not yet clear how they will remove it completely.”
Burns notes that Tesla battery research partner Jeff Dahn has already published some work towards this goal: “Through processing techniques and different dopant elements, it is possible to increase the nickel content and remove cobalt without penalties for cycling performance.
“Dr. Jeff Dahn who works with Tesla has published some results on these types of concepts and I do believe that the need for cobalt in lithium-ion cells can become a thing of the past over the coming years. This is an active area of Novonix’s cathode development as well because it is clear that cobalt sourcing will remaining challenging and expensive.”
Burns adds that it was interesting to see Tesla talk about going upstream on cathode processing but also says: “I think the presentation leaves a lot of questions about their plans, processing and what it really means for some of their supply chain, especially with the comments made around lithium.
“I think as is typical for Tesla, there were a lot of big promises made and there are a lot of engineering challenges still between today and those promises becoming a reality. It will be exciting to see how close to these targets they can get over the coming years.”
Can Tesla really make a $25k EV by 2023?
“Probably not,” says Burns, noting he would love to see that happen but that it was unclear if Tesla plans to make a $25,000 Model 3 or a new vehicle.
“I think if they are doing a new vehicle then by 2023 maybe we will see the higher cost version of that model released and over another year or so have the lowest cost options available; this has historically been how Tesla has operated.
“While I say ‘probably not’, it is tough to bet against Tesla and their ability to innovate and provide great engineering solutions to these challenges quickly and I would love to see them deliver on this claim and I think they will definitely get there, just maybe not by 2023 on this one.”
Most important Tesla Battery Day takeaways
“Without question, the most important take away from this is that we are not going to see the deployment of some “next generation” lithium ion technology any time soon,” says Burns.
“Things like solid-state batteries are always promised as very high energy density (leading to low cost) and talk about a pathway towards $50/kWh.
“What Tesla has just said is that they can essentially get to those production costs with today’s technology of high nickel cathodes and graphite-silicon anodes.
“To me that solidifies what I have continually believed which is that chemistry pairing is undoubtedly the chemistry to dominate the next decade of battery manufacturing for EV and ESS (stationary energy storage).”
Whitehead adds: “One of the most important conclusions of the event is that it is not enough to simply expect one company will deliver the transport and energy transitions we need to restrain global warming below 1.5 degrees.
“This goal requires us to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which in turn means we need to see a concerted effort across the transport and energy sectors to significantly ramp up battery manufacturing over the coming decade to support electric vehicles and stationary storage.”
What does an increase in battery production mean for Australia
Australia is in the unique position to be a great beneficiary from this transition, Whitehead says, but he adds that he thinks state and federal governments need to support an acceleration of mining local battery mineral resources, and eventually also local battery manufacturing.
“So far policy efforts in this space have been relatively lacklustre and Australia is letting this opportunity pass us by, precisely at a time where we need to deliver a just transition pathway for all those jobs that will inevitably be lost in the fossil fuel resource sector over the coming years.
“We are a proud mining nation. Let’s continue that legacy by supplying environmentally-sustainable, ethically-sourced, high-quality battery minerals to the world, in addition to the value-added products that can be locally manufactured with these resources.”
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.