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GM says its new low-cobalt EV battery cell has 60% more capacity

Any legitimate EV development program starts with the batteries that make electric vehicles go. So when General Motors (GM) yesterday laid out its multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy — for getting to 1 million EV sales per year asap — it presented the company’s flexible Ultium battery system as the key.

General Motors emphasized that its core battery strategy was about building a better cell, and then using it in a modular way for vehicles of every size and shape. Adam Kwiatkowski, GM’s director of advanced vehicle design, said:

The crown jewel of the Ultium system is the battery cell itself.

Andy Oury, a lead engineer for batteries, said the new cell has 60% more energy capacity than what’s been used in the Bolt EV.

Our strategy is to move forward with the fewest number of the largest cells possible.

It’s the equivalent of more than 20 small cylindrical cans that some of our competitors use. There are about 20 layers in our cell. So each layer is the equivalent of about one small cylindrical can cell. We think it’s really smart to take all of those layers, and put them inside a single pouch that’s a simple, low-cost, lightweight cell solution.

GM is also changing from a nickel-manganese-cobalt chemistry to an NCMA mix. The A stands for aluminum, the key to reducing the cobalt by 70%. While developed with LC Chem, its partner, the chemistry is proprietary for GM.

Tesla is also reportedly making that switch to NCMA (with LG Chem’s help) for use in the made-in-China Model 3.

GM’s Oury called the NCMA chemistry a “giant leap on the road toward higher nickel, lower cobalt chemistries.” And he added that it’s going to “break through the $100 per kilowatt-hour cost target.”

Those cells will be packed into modules that “stack like toy bricks,” says Oury. The stacking can be horizontal or vertical.

This vertical stacking is for high-energy packs, like crossovers and trucks like the GMC Hummer EV, but we can also stack them horizontally. This reduces the height of the module for low-roof vehicles.

With horizontal stacking, we can add 22-kilowatt hours of energy and space that would not otherwise be utilized.

The packs are also flexible and modular to meet the needs of the customer and the vehicle. We can have 6, 8, 10, or 12 modules in the same vehicle, custom-tailoring the energy requirements to customer and vehicle needs for the ultimate in battery range and capability. The GMC Hummer EV can have a double stack of modules with 24 modules in one pack.

This is the smaller, less capable outdoing GM battery cell.

This is the smaller, less capable outgoing GM battery cell.

The GM battery engineer explained how making its own cells, in cooperation with LG Chem at its new plant in Lordstown, Ohio, would give them valuable knowledge and experience. That plant is built for scale. Oury said:

When we get to the point when we’re making a million electric vehicles per year, we will need a quarter of a billion cells per year. That’s hundreds of thousands of cells per day. And tens of thousands of cells per hour.

Electrek’s Take

It’s easy for automakers to make big claims about batteries, but it’s not so easy to verify those claims.

At the event yesterday, I asked Sam Abuelsamid, the lead mobility analyst at Navigant Research, if there’s any real news about new batteries from GM. He said, “GM is doing some interesting stuff with this new battery system.”

Abuelsamid praised GM’s strategy to use a common cell format across the full range of its vehicles, as well as its module-level battery management that could mean mixing and matching different chemistries in a single pack. Moreover, he said that cutting down the cobalt by 70% will definitely drive down the costs.

The promise of lower-cost, higher-density batteries is encouraging. Of course, none of that matters unless the company can put new advanced batteries into vehicles that are actually available. Those lower supply costs also need to equate to a more compelling consumer price for a long-range EV.

We have another year to wait to see if that happens. The 2022 Bolt EUV launches in summer 2021, followed by the GMC Hummer EV in 2021.

Regardless, it looks like GM is trying to avoid the battery constraints afflicting other automakers. Andy Oury said:

Our battery plant will be the size of 30 football fields. And when we break ground this spring, it will ramp to 30 gigawatt hours of capacity.

He added:

With room to expand.

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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.