Tesla’s Battery Day event fell flat, according to the mainstream press. The truth is that Elon Musk unveiled new battery technology and discussed the hurdles the company’s scientists face. Instead of wowing the audience with next-generation vehicles, the session was a science lesson about battery manufacturing and the mainstream press has a limited attention span when it comes to science, math and facts. Tesla is planning to improve battery design, reduce costs and produce a passenger car that would sell for $25,000, but they offered little in the way of a timeline.
Musk described the company’s plans for a tabless cell, which would be much larger than the current cell. It would increase the amount of energy storage by five times, reduce resistance and lower heat generation. Probably the biggest surprise was his announcement regarding the development of silicon anode technology. Saying that silicon stores nine times more lithium than graphite, Musk discussed silicon-oxide-based solutions and said he expected it to dominate the market for the next seven years. Tesla believes that silicon anodes could increase the vehicle’s driving range by 20% and lower costs by 5%. Musk said it could take three years to fully realize large battery-cost reductions.
Several new initiatives from Tesla could bring battery chemicals production back to North America.
The first was the development of a North American cathode facility, which would give the company greater control over raw materials and allow it to reduce the carbon footprint of battery production.
Tesla also mentioned it may move upstream into mine production. The company has acquired a lithium deposit in Nevada and it claims to have developed a novel lithium extraction method. It also recently signed a deal with Piedmont Lithium (See Leading Developments, p. 5).
As E&MJ has mentioned in the past, the term lithium-ion is a bit of a misnomer. The actual amount of lithium in the cell is quite low. The cell should be called a nickel-graphite cell, and the more nickel, the higher the energy density of the battery. The Tesla Model 3 contains about 30 kg of nickel. Musk talked about his options for nickel and he has been quite vocal about his nickel needs this year.
Nickel is primarily used to produce stainless steel and nickel prices have not really recovered from a collapse in 2007. No new major mines have been developed since and, with the lead time for mine development standing at seven to 10 years, no new sources will likely be developed any time soon. This would be a great opportunity for Musk to roll up his sleeves and buy an idled nickel mine or a nickel mining company and lead the world with eco-friendly natural resource development.