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Expert on Tesla's Battery Day: "This is a quantum leap"

2020-09-23T18:22:54.956Z

More range for less money: With new batteries, Tesla wants to make its electric cars better than diesel and petrol. Battery expert Maximilian Fichtner explains what to make of it.



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Tesla reports progress in its energy storage

Photo: Bloomberg / Getty Images

SPIEGEL:

Mr. Fichtner, Tesla's "Battery Day" aroused enormous interest; once again the automotive world was looking to California instead of Stuttgart or Wolfsburg.

Is that a sign that Germany has slept through battery technology?

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Maximilian Fichtner:

To answer the question, you only have to look at what Tesla has presented: plans to increase range by more than 50 percent and reduce battery costs by 56 percent.

To this end, the company has shown a way how on the area of ​​a gigafactory ...

SPIEGEL:

... a factory in which, like in Nevada, several gigawatt hours of battery capacity can be produced per year ...

Fichtner:

... a terawatt-hour factory can be built, i.e. battery production that is 1000 times greater.

According to Tesla, this should reduce investment costs per gigawatt hour by up to 70 percent.

It's revolutionary.

Germany doesn't have to hide in research, but things look different in production.

To person

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Maximilian Fichtner

, born in 1961, is Director at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm and Professor for Solid State Chemistry at the University of Ulm and Scientific Director of CELEST, the "Center for Electrochemical Energy Storage Ulm-Karlsruhe", one of the largest research platforms in the battery sector.

He researches new methods of energy storage and the development of the necessary materials.

SPIEGEL:

What are German automakers doing differently?

Fichtner:

You outsource more things to suppliers.

They only develop core components such as the engine themselves. Battery production is not considered a core business.

One tries at some point to use proven methods to build an electric car that is equivalent to Tesla, only with better body gaps.

Tesla, on the other hand, achieves a lead through technology by processing the entire production chain, from the integration of its own hardware and software to batteries and the finished car.

And now they have presented a rather unusual cell design that no other manufacturer would approach.

SPIEGEL:

What kind of battery cell did Tesla present?

Fichtner:

A new round cell.

So far, Tesla batteries have contained round cells that are slightly larger than the batteries of a classic flashlight.

Inside is a rolled up metal foil with a paste on it, that is the actual storage material.

There is a tab at the end of this roll.

When I charge or discharge the battery, the current has to go through the entire winding via the tab.

Tesla has now managed to cross-connect this role and make the strap superfluous.

"Even if the company only achieves a fraction of the growth announced, that is still far above what the competition in this country is planning."

Maximilian Fichtner

SPIEGEL:

That sounds comparatively banal, what is the effect?

Fichtner:

The path for electricity will be significantly shorter and Tesla can increase the size of the cell to that of a small beer can.

No manufacturer would actually do that, as otherwise the heat would not come out of the cell during fast charging.

Due to the design without a tab and the shorter distances, the resistance is lower and hardly any heat is generated.

The format alone enables 16 to 18 percent higher ranges, and at the same time a system can be loaded up to six times faster.

That is a quantum leap.

SPIEGEL:

Will such advances make an electric car more comfortable and useful than a combustion engine in 2022?

Fichtner:

Yes, but that could happen earlier, just not necessarily through Tesla.

The Chinese manufacturer BYD has now presented a car with a very thin lithium iron phosphate battery, with a range of 600 kilometers and a price of around 32,000 US dollars.

Such a battery is very safe and free of nickel and cobalt, but used to require a lot of space and was therefore not an option for normal cars for a long time. BYD has now managed to reduce the space required by half.

This battery is cheap and could make electric cars even safer, although battery-powered vehicles are already 45 times less likely to catch fire per kilometer than cars with internal combustion.

SPIEGEL: In the

future, Tesla wants to create up to 54 percent higher ranges.

Is this realistic?

Fichtner:

This value is made up of advances in cell design, the integration of the battery in the vehicle and changes to the two poles of the storage unit, the anode and the cathode.

I am skeptical about the latter.

Using silicon instead of graphite for the anode increases the capacity, but the material inflates three to four times during charging.

This leads to mechanical stress.

Tesla has to solve this problem.

In the case of the cathode, nickel is supposed to replace cobalt, but this increases the risk of fire, even if only minimally.

Tesla wants to decouple the nickel from the electrolyte by means of a coating and minimize the risk.

But then the problem remains that nickel is only available to a limited extent and could become the new cobalt in the long run.

We definitely need an introduction to the circular economy.

SPIEGEL:

So are the 54 percent excessive?

Fichtner:

Even if Tesla only achieves half of the expected increases in the difficult changes to the anode and a few percentage points less in the cell design, 40 percent more range remains.

That would be around 700 instead of 500 kilometers on one charge.

That's a lot, based on almost conventional battery chemistry.

Elon Musk has worked everywhere, from processing the raw materials to the finished car, to make his cars better and cheaper.

Tesla has apparently managed to turn both screws in the right direction.

Even if the company only achieves a fraction of the growth announced, that is still well above what the competition in this country is planning.

SPIEGEL:

Speaking of cheaper, Musk promised to cut costs by 56 percent per kilowatt hour of battery capacity.

What effect would that have?

Fichtner:

Then you would be at costs of 70 to 80 US dollars per kilowatt hour.

There would be no more reason to buy a combustion engine - not even the price.

That would be around 20,000 euros for a mid-range to upper-class vehicle.

SPIEGEL:

How realistic is that?

Fichtner:

The cost reduction in two to three years would be extremely quick.

When it comes to cell design, however, Tesla has calculated everything well and the better integration of the battery into the vehicle has been well thought out.

I think it is very likely that Tesla will achieve at least two-thirds to three-quarters of the targets.

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Source: spiegel

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