March 4, 2014 – Vol.18 No.50
Tesla's Gigafactory: Technology Flexible or Obsolete on Opening Day?
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News.
It's difficult manufacturing things. It's expensive too.
Making stuff is more than an idea, a design, engineering, materials and craftsmanship: It's an investment in plant and equipment. In the case of modern mass production of high technology devices, even batteries, it's pricey, highly-automated, precision machines that make production possible. The machines of modern mass production cost big bucks.
Obviously, no matter the size or scope of the tooling and the investment in manufacturing equipment, as a manufacturer you want to keep using it as long as possible to earn your investment back.
Elon Musk is charging ahead (pun intended) with plans to build a $5 billion battery plant right here in the good ol' USA. The US Southwest to be more exact. The wind and solar powered plant should be able to make enough electric car batteries to enable his company, Tesla Motors, to build 500,000 cars a year, including cars considerably less expensive than the current Model S.
Batteries made at the plant would also be used in stationary energy storage applications, such as for home solar installations.
He's said little about the electrochemistry of the battery that will be manufactured at the plant, but apparently he's in talks with Panasonic, so it looks like it could be some variation on whatever lithium-ion battery that company has up its sleeve.
Musk appears to be reasonably smart guy and I hope he's looking closely at the evolving world of battery technology so that this new plant will be flexible enough to be able to switch battery chemistries without additional investment in tooling. (Or not much investment.)
You see, it's very possible that whatever battery he produces will by obsolete soon after the first one moves off the assembly line.
Following the electronics industry, with each new generation of product batteries are improving in performance along with a little cost reduction. ( Aside from increased supply of batteries, the economy of scale of the gigafactory should help lower battery costs.) But it could be that in five years or less, the batteries available today are barely recognizable.
It's also even possible that lithium-based batteries, at least for cars, will be headed to the technology dustbin by then.
For instance, Musk should be carefully watching the new partnership between aluminum giant Alcoa and start-up aluminum-air battery maker Phinergy of Israel.
Alcoa, in most of its history, has been focusing its products on the metallic structural properties of aluminum. The fledgling partnership will focus on the energy carrying capacity of aluminum. Phinergy has already built an aluminum-air powered car and expects all-electric range to be 1000 miles or so. Looking ahead, cars and life cycle costs would be about the same as conventional gas powered cars with aluminum-air batteries installed.
Though aluminum-air batteries would be swapped, with internal parts (the aluminum sacrificial anodes) removed and recycled with normal aluminum recycling, at 1000 miles range, battery swapping would be infrequent.
For his vehicles, Musk has already demonstrated battery swapping. Yet the question will remain whether the new plant will be able switch to this technology, or some other, should a superior battery come along.
Aluminum, in most every way, is far superior to lithium as a battery component. Unlike lithium, aluminum is readily available on the planet. It's the most abundant metal in the earth's crust. (It's also the third most abundant element.) It easily can have a green lifecycle utilizing renewable energy to process it from ore. It can be recycled easily and endlessly, again using renewable energy. And, from a geopolitical point of view, the some of same players now in oil, including Saudi Arabia, also have extensive bauxite reserves with which to extract alumina. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has already invested in aluminum production and neighboring Dubai has one of the largest aluminum smelting operations in the world.
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