Driving to lower carbon living: Elon Musk and his electric car (Nickel Magazine – July 2014)


Tesla Motors and the driving force behind it, Elon Musk, have captured the attention of the world. Tesla is taking a 20th century idea and shows every sign of turning it into a disruptive force in the automotive world in the 21st century. The man and the machine collectively constitute a game changer, for which nickel is essential.

Battery Evolution

The battery industry is in a prolonged period of research, development and end-use specialization. At the same time, ‘nickel’ is disappearing from the name of the dominant battery chemistries in favour of ‘lithium’.

That, however, disguises the reality that nickel continues to contribute its unique qualities to most lithium-ion chemistries. Sometimes it will be a supporting role (the electrode tabs, for instance) but sometimes it is an essential component of the chemistry itself.

No battery chemistry is perfect, but for each application there will be one that is optimal. For a motive power battery pack the recent chemistries have been nickel-metal hydride (by far the most common), nickel-cadmium, LiFePO4 and lithium polymer. Since 2012, however, the type 18650 (nickel/cobalt/aluminum –LiNiCoAlO2 – commonly referred to as an NCA battery) has been the sole choice of the most electrifying all-electric car: Tesla’s Model S and, late next year, Tesla’s Model X SUV.

Battery Performance

The current Tesla S model is a luxury sedan but powered by an unimpressive looking cell that would seem entirely familiar to all of us: the double AA battery. The chemistry inside the double AA case is, however, not standard. Also, many are put to work in the current Tesla automobile. The 85kWh battery pack contains 7,104 cells in 16 modules wired in series. Each module contains six groups of 74 cells wired in parallel with the six groups wired in series within the module.

Putting all of these cells to work in this configuration results in impressive statistics. The driving range is rated at 500km at a sustained speed of 90kph. It takes just 5.6 seconds to achieve a speed of 100kph. And the top speed is 200kph. While the grid from which Tesla owners recharge their cars will not be zero carbon, the operational life of those cars – and the competing cars that will emerge – will be an enormous advance over the internal combustion engine.

Meeting Demand

The company is currently on track to sell 35,000 of this model in 2014 and predicts that by 2020 there will be an annual production of 500,000 units of various Tesla models. This suggests that, in round numbers, more than three billion nickel-containing NCA cells will be needed to power just Tesla cars alone. And given that Tesla, in June 2014, opened all its patents to all potential competitors, there could be a far larger number of full-electric cars being produced than currently envisaged.

Clearly some large scale changes in production will be required and, consistent with the large vision of Mr Musk, Tesla has proposed, in partnership with Panasonic/Sanyo, a ‘gigafactory’ (so-called because of all the giga-watt capacity it will manufacture) that will, by 2020, produce in excess of three billion NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminum) cells. Site preparation began in May of this year (see illustration opposite). The company claims that the scale and efficiencies achieved will reduce the cost of producing the cells by 30%.

The future

Battery chemistry is evolving and diversifying rapidly. While today’s main batteries for hybrid (NiMH) and electric cars (NCA) depend on nickel there is no guarantee that this will continue. What will continue, however, are the unique, varied and still being explored attributes of nickel alone and when combined with other elements. The relationship between energy and nickel – from hydro to nuclear to chemical – will evolve but seems assured.

For the original source of this article, click here: https://www.nickelinstitute.org/NickelMagazine/MagazineHome/AllArchives/2014/Volume29-2/FeatureDrivingLowCarbon.aspx