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Tesla's Battery Technology and Future of EVs

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【Summary】Robust battery technology would allow EVs to go further without recharging. Additionally, it would let the business sell its vehicles at lower price points, while offering more storage or space for passengers.

Michael Cheng    May 11, 2017 3:50 PM PT
Tesla's Battery Technology and Future of EVs

Tesla's success is highly dependent on its ability to develop powerful, reliable and affordable batteries. The business relies on power cells for its line of EVs and energy storage products (Powerwall).

Robust battery technology would allow EVs to go further without recharging. Additionally, it would let the business sell its vehicles at lower price points, while offering more storage or space for passengers. For its future fleet of commercial trucks, the cutting-edge power cells could help the company compete with brands that offer diesel-powered options.

Battery technology is so important for the business that many people (jokingly) view Tesla as a battery company – not as an automaker.

Panasonic and Tesla

Tesla's ability to produce superior batteries can be traced back to its partnership with Panasonic. The two formed a collaboration in 2009 via a supply agreement. After realizing the potential impact of the units, Panasonic invested $30 million to solidify its role with Tesla as a researcher and battery maker.

According to Reuters, Panasonic intends to inject a whopping $1.6 billion into the automaker's battery factory. Earlier this year, the electronics brand announced it will be expanding its role in the collaboration by developing CMOS image sensors for self-driving purposes.

Car vs Grid (Battery Applications)

That partnership has paid off exponentially. Panasonic helped push the limits of Tesla's lithium-ion batteries using nickel-cathode technology, consisting of lithium, nickel, cobalt and aluminum oxide. The combination of these materials in Tesla cars is a trade secret. It is important to consider that the company's car batteries are not the same units that power its grid products, which uses NMC batteries that are designed for intense, daily cycling. The main difference is the presence of manganese.

When it comes to lifespan, the NMC battery is capable of completing roughly 1,500 cycles. By comparison, the units inside Tesla's EVs have shorter lifespans, due to its high energy density levels that make it less stable. Both of these products will be manufactured at the Gigafactory.

"For decades now we have been pushing the limits of our Li-ion batteries in terms of energy density," said Naoaki Yabuuchi, an associate professor at Tokyo Denki University.

Making EVs Cheaper

Tesla's cars (Model S and Model X) are currently being powered by the 18650 battery cell. The compact battery boasts lower price points, compared to large-format units that other automakers are using. Considering that power cells make up around 33 percent of the overall cost of the Tesla cars, it is critical for the business to improve its battery technology if it wants to target mainstream consumers.

This is exactly why Tesla developed the 2170 battery cell. It's slightly larger than the 18650 unit (almost double the volume) and is capable of storing massive amounts of energy (almost double the current). The new batteries will be introduced to Tesla's cars, starting with the Model 3.  

Other tech giants have caught on to this developing trend. Samsung released its own version of the 2170 cell (called 21700) during the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) 2017.

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