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Behind the Development of Tesla's Next-Gen Battery

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Feb. 12, 2021—When you’re working at a facility called the Gigafactory, you can expect to be working on a large scale.

Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology for Panasonic North America, said that it can be like orchestrating a symphony, given all the different departments and specialties involved. They’re ordering raw materials by the hundreds of tons, not kilograms.

“We have to worry about oru supply chain if we’re going to build at the scale that Tesla needs or the electric vehicle industry at all needs,” Mikolajczak said.

She spoke during a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. Panasonic finds itself in a key position for electric vehicle battery development. The company has had a supply agreement with Tesla for years, but in 2020 it became the lead developer of Tesla’s highly anticipated new battery design—the 4680 (more about that here).

Mikolajczak and Shawn Watanabe, head of energy technology and manufacturing for Panasonic, spoke about the challenges of pushing battery technology forward as part of a high-demand partnership with Tesla.

 

Big Production

Batteries are complex units, and creating a new design at scale presents big challenges.

“The manufacturing process is moving very very fast,” Mikolajczak said. “If you make a mistake, you have to find it very quickly or you're going to create an enormous amount of scrap.”

Production could create millions of battery cells per day. In order to minimize mistakes and maximize consistency, Panasonic looked to automate much of the process. Watanabe said that nearly 400 Japanese engineers moved to the Reno area to set up the production line and train staff members.

Mikolajczak said that the manufacturing equipment also came from Panasonic HQ in Japan, but it was scaled up for a larger production capacity. Since the beginning, there has been a push to maximize automation.

“One of the big challenges to my engineering team is to continually add automation, add sensors to our equipment,” she said.

 

Road to Colbalt-Free

The inclusion of rare raw materials with toxic origins has been a stain on the lithium ion battery. Watanabe said that the company is working to decrease its cobalt content, and they’ve already made progress.

Panasonic started manufacturing lithium ion batteries in 1994. By 2006, the company had reduced its cobalt content by 85 percent. In around three years, the company plans to be cobalt-free while increasing the capabilities of the battery.

“It’s not only the degrees in the cobalt (reduced), but also increasing the capacity and light weight and more stability,” Watanabe said.

That does provide a challenge to engineers. Mikolajczak said that less cobalt makes the manufacturing process tougher, but battery technology has made incredible advances before. There’s no reason that it won’t happen again.

“Reducing cobalt makes it harder for us to manufacture but ultimately does help reduce the negative environmental impacts and also the cost,which is fantastic,” she said.

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