CES 2021: Next-Gen EV Battery Shows Big Promise

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

During this year’s CES, Panasonic highlighted its strong partnership with Tesla on the EV batteries . Tesla will use Panasonic’s Ni based Li ion cell in their newest EV battery packs...

During this year’s CES, Panasonic highlighted its strong partnership with Tesla and the production of batteries with increased performance and decreased production costs. Shawn Watanabe, head of energy technology and manufacturing for Panasonic Corporation, and Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology for Panasonic energy of North America, pointed out several key aspects such as waste recovery, efficiency, and the importance of automation.

Panasonic has produced lithium-ion batteries since 1994 and entered the business with Tesla for the Model S. “Now, we already have the fourth generation, which means improvements in capacity, safety, and low cost,” said Mikolajczak. Activity at Tesla is at a high pace. Significant investments from Panasonic have led to an increase in production capacity to meet the demands of the entire automotive sector, not just Tesla. These funds will also be used to improve production technologies to ensure increased battery capacity.

“The speed at which we were continuously improving the cells that we put in the Model S and then also developed for the Model Three was fast by anyone’s standards,” said Watanabe. He emphasized that continuous improvement and development of technology is always necessary.

Automation

The business of manufacturing a battery is a bit like orchestrating a symphony, the speakers said. There are so many different organizations within Panasonic that they have to bring all their skills together. “If we want to keep up with Tesla and the electric vehicle industry, we have to think not in kilograms but in tonnes or hundreds of tonnes of material. And that means a lot for the supply chain, it means a lot for logistics. And you go through a lot of complex processes to achieve this.”

Panasonic’s speakers confirmed that the process is moving at a fast pace: “So if you make a mistake, you have to find it very quickly. The stakes are really high. There’s no time to waste if you think there’s a problem with the production, you have to make a decision very quickly.”

“Of course, if you stop, you have to move very quickly to solve any problem, because we look at our production and millions of cells a day. And our customer needs these millions of cells a day to be able to produce the volumes that they need to supply customers outside. This is not just going to be a problem for Tesla, this is going to be a problem for the EV market in general,” said Mikolajczak.

Automation is a solution to mitigate safety issues but also to solve problems in the production process. The process is tremendously automated, commented Watanabe. Adding automation, adding sensors to the equipment so that it can be automated, is a key aspect, while also trying as much as possible to optimize quality control.

Battery waste

At Panasonic, the first thing we try to do is to minimize waste. Having a high amount of waste means that you are not producing a good material. But, at the same time, any production process will produce a certain amount of waste. Panasonic has also stated that it has invested in Redwood Materials, which recovers waste materials from battery manufacturing, reuses them, and puts them back into the production chain of new cells, reducing the demand for raw materials.

“Obviously, the materials we use are very valuable. We use a lot of copper; we use aluminum. These are very valuable, and we want to recover them because it took a lot of effort to originally produce these metals from their ores. Our goal is to recycle these materials in the cell supply chain,” said Watanabe.

Evolution is constant, but in the history of modern electric cars, we have seen lithium batteries with Manganese Oxide (LMO, the first generation Leaf), lithium with Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt Oxide (NMC, BMW i3) or lithium with Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminum Oxide (NCA, Tesla). One of the frontiers on which research is moving is the elimination of the amount of cobalt used. The stability provided by cobalt will be replaced at a lower cost by increasing nickel and, through processing, making it comparable to cobalt in terms of physical properties.

4680 cells

Panasonic said the company will be able to introduce batteries with lower production costs. This process of continuous improvement has led to the creation of a chemical composition in which cobalt is less than 5% of the total. Watanabe said that within some years at the latest, Panasonic will be able to bring high-density cobalt-free cells to the market. Eliminating cobalt will significantly reduce production costs, which today are around 30% to 40% of the total cost of making an electric car.

“Reducing cobalt is very difficult; it makes production sophisticated, but in the end, it reduces the environmental impact and the cost,” said Mikolajczak.

Panasonic-Tesla is a relationship that will last for a long time, as evidenced by the joint report in the Nevada Gigafactory; they will also work together to start production of the 4680 cells, which when they come to market will be the highest performing of all. The new cells will make their market debut in the Model S Plaid during 2021. This will be followed by the Tesla Semi, Cybertruck, and Model Y.

Electric vehicles have become a focal point of global efforts to reduce emissions. In 2019, electric vehicles accounted for only 2.6% of global car sales. Tesla, in partnership with Panasonic, is trying to change this.

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