Panasonic Energy and the Future of the EV Battery
- Panasonic will share that their goal is to produce the world's safest, highest-quality batteries. In this next conversation, members of the Panasonic team discuss developments and battery technology that are driving the industry forward. ♪ Tech talk ♪ ♪ Tech talk ♪ ♪Tech talk ♪ - Hi, everyone, I'm Sean O'Kane.
And I'm a senior transportation reporter at The Verge and welcome to this tech talk all about the future of batteries. I'm joined today by two people who help run one of the biggest battery companies in the world. And there's really no better time I think to talk about the progression of battery technology. It's exciting to see where this technology has come and where it's gonna be going.
And Panasonic has played a big role in what Tesla has been able to do with electric vehicles. Having partnered with a Silicon Valley Automaker on the Gigafactory in Nevada, and I'm sure people will be eager to hear a little bit more about that partnership today and also how it's evolved over the years. My two guests today are Shawn Watanabe, the head of energy technology and manufacturing for Panasonic Corporation. And Celina Mikolajczak, the Vice President of battery technology for Panasonic Energy of North America, she works at the Gigafactory in Nevada with Tesla. Thank you two, for being here.
So I think Shawn, it would be helpful to get for us just an idea of how Panasonic got here in the first place and sort of where it has come in lithium-ion battery development over the years, even before we have mass market electric vehicles. - Yeah, Panasonic provided the lithium-ion battery from 1994. And we started to the business for the Tesla it might be the 2012. 1865 these small size cylindrical lithium-ion battery, we provided to the Tesla for the model S and the Panasonic we have already thought that like eight years or more they supply battery and the Tesla have updated their model S and also the battery is updated.
So we provide it to the our the battery generation the current now, we have already first generation. It is meaning to the capacity and safety and the low cost everything, we update it always and introducing the latest the technology is so that our contributed point to the EV world - when you talk about this different generations of cell development, did you know when you started the partnership with Tesla, how fast that development would move? - Yeah, I was at Tesla, working with Watanabe-san during a lot of that time period. - [Shawn] Yeah. And the speed at which we were continuously improving the cells that we were putting in model S and then even developing for model three was fast by anyone's standard.
It even surprised us inside Tesla about how fast we had to go as sooner had we finished and brought a cell into production and started producing with it. But we were already working through with Panasonic the design of the next cell. So it's been continuous, continuous improvement, continuous technology development, no resting on laurels just on to the next. - If the speed that you guys started working at was so different than before, what is it like now and for Panasonic, but also for the industry at large now that there are multiple big companies working on lithium-ion cells for electric vehicles? - The thinking for the how much cells in the manufacturing, it's a point. So for example, we provided to the 1865 small cell for the mode S and X. We already achieved the 3 billion cell already shipped to Tesla.
And 2170 it was for the model three cell also achieved to the 3 billion cell. So its meaning to the so huge supply chain have to build up. So it meaning to we have to so the collaborate with so many chemical suppliers, the material, cathode material, separator, electrolyte many things. - Yeah, it's kind of like orchestrating a symphony. Because you've got so many different organizations within Panasonic having to bring together all their expertise. And as Watanabe-san pointed out, we have to worry about our supply chain.
If we're gonna build at the scale that Tesla needs, or electric vehicle industry at all needs, you are buying not, in kilograms, but in tons or hundreds of tons of material. - Yeah. - And that means a lot from the supply chain, it means a lot from logistics, then you bring it into the factory.
And you go through a lot of complex processes to make a cell. And then if we're gonna update the technology, which is something we're doing right now, we've been introducing a higher energy density cell at Gigafactory, it becomes more like orchestrating a fugue where we've got one cell model running on some lines, we've got another cell model running on other lines, we're converting lines as we go, we've got new materials coming in, getting it perfectly right takes the effort of hundreds, if not thousands of people. - Yeah, So Celina, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that, specifically, this idea of working the kind of scale that Tesla, has said that it needs to operate out to meet the goals that Elon Musk has set for the company. And I can, almost feel like I can imagine some of the challenges involved in some of the things you just mentioned, sorts of materials getting the supply chain, right. I'm curious what other challenges come from working at that kind of scale? Because I've been to the Gigafactory, it is already enormous. And I know that it's still not even really close to complete.
So what are some of the other challenges when it comes to trying to manufacture even these small cells at a such a big scale? - Well, the manufacturing process is moving very, very fast. So if you make a mistake, you have to find it very quickly, or you're gonna make an enormous amount of scrap. So the stakes are really high. There's no dawdling, if you, if you think there's a problem with manufacturing, you have to make a decision very quickly. Are you gonna continue? Are you gonna stop? What are you gonna do? And of course, if you stop, you have to move very quickly to resolve whatever issue there is, because the, we look at our output and millions of cells a day and our customer needs these millions of cells a day to be able to produce the volumes that they need to achieve to supply the customers outside.
This is not gonna be a uniquely Tesla problem, this is gonna be a problem for the EV market in general. And really, any cell size that you deal with, you're still gonna be producing huge volumes of electrode, and that has to be produced very quickly. And you still have to make the cells. So it is very fast paced, it's very adrenaline racing to be in the factory, there is a buzz, there is a constant hum to the factory, because everything is happening so fast.
- I would imagine that one way to try to help mitigate any potential safety problems, but also deal with the scale that you guys have talked about is automation. And like I said, got a chance to see some of that battery line up close myself. I know that it's highly automated. Celina, could you tell me a little bit about what goes into trying to automate a process like this? - Yeah, the process is tremendously automated. The equipment that was originally specced and designed in Japan and brought here was really the best the latest generation of equipment that Panasonic had been using for cell making, except scaled up so that we could run more cells, more quickly, higher volumes. So we started with a really robust, robust base of automation.
But as we've continued to work here at this scale, with, a group of workers who have not made batteries before but who've come in from the Reno area and other places and have been willing to be trained and learning, means we've had to automate even more. So one of the big challenges to my engineering team is to continuously add automation, add sensors to our equipment. So we continuously look for areas where there might be a manual quality check, can we automate the quality, check somewhere where adjustment needs to be made. Can we apply sensors to determine that the adjustment has to be made and make it automatically. We keep doing this because to continue to grow and scale, we just we have to there is no way we can achieved the ambitions we want.
If, if we don't automate, frankly, our parking lot will not hold all the cars who would need if we didn't really focus on automation. - And also the Panasonic might be 50, or 60% of the equipment is a Panasonic in house production equipment. So we designed so the best focus on the high energy density cell. It's really so the challenging, but so and so the thing is, it's so that might be 300 or 400 Japanese engineer moved to the Reno area, and it'll really changed.
Everyone stayed for a long time in hotel, and really challenge to that or how to improve the how to introduce transfer to the local people. - Well, automation is complicated, it is difficult, you really have to work carefully, you have to test. It's something that Panasonic has a lot of experience doing. And as Watanabe-san pointed out, to start this factory, hundreds of engineers came from Japan to work on this equipment to tune it in to make sure that it was operating effectively. And it takes a lot to start up a factory, there's no question.
But that group really brought the equipment up and started hiring in local engineers, local members. And that engineering team has taken over running this equipment. So now, we've got about 250 members in the engineering team locally, plus some ex-pats and some folks still coming from Japan, but not in the hundreds. But some very good engineers coming to continue to evolve our equipment, evolve the automation, but you don't just put something on the line. And, press go and hope that it works.
Before we try something on a production line, or before we attempt to run it, we're gonna go through multiple trials to make sure that the processes we're trying to automate are actually gonna do the things we need them to do. - Celina, you mentioned scrap before, when you're talking about dealing with all these materials and manufacturing these battery cells. One thing that I'm really eager to learn more about myself, and I think it's really interesting is recycling some of these materials and trying to really find a way to not wind-up with as much scrap, could you give me a little bit of an idea of sort of how you guys are dealing with stuff like that at the Gigafactory and where, what kind of role recycling plays in this whole process? - Sure, well, the first thing we try to do is minimize scrap at all costs. It's the first thing you try to do with manufacturing, because, it means you're not producing good material. But at the same time, any production process will produce certain amount of scrap.
Obviously, the materials we use are very valuable. We use a lot of copper, we use aluminum, we use the NCA material in our cathode, these just from their metals content are very valuable, and you wanna recover them. Because it took a lot of effort to originally produce these metals from their ores. So we've always recycled.
Our long-term goal with Redwood is that we want to recycle those materials back into the cell supply chain. So if we have got cathode material going to them, we want to break that down to cathode material precursors, and then send that back through the cathode making process. If we're scrapping copper, we would sure like that to be turned into new copper foil for us.
And, obviously, our own scrap is not gonna supply our massive production because it's only a very small fraction of what we produce. So one of the things that's interesting about Redwood is that they're pulling cells and e-waste scrap from really all over the country. And so it's a steady stream of raw materials. And that could be become an appreciable part of our supply chain, at least for certain materials. So that's, that's our long term goal.
- Now, recycling is one thing I know there are other materials that a lot of companies Panasonic included, are trying to get out of the batteries, the power electric vehicles. And I know, Shawn, that you've been involved in trying to lead some of Panasonic's efforts there. Can you tell me a little bit about what is going on with trying to make a cobalt-free battery, why is that important? And what kind of benefits can that bring to and who is it bringing benefits to? Is it customers, is it the environment, what's going on with that? - Yeah, that is really challenge on the historical. So the, from 1994, Panasonic started to the manufacturing to the lithium-ion battery, it's at that time is a sort of cobalt content in the cathode material is 100% cobalt. So, and, for example, so the 1865 cell, the capacity is really sort of small start.
And in 2006, Panasonic, the world fast manufacture, it asserted to the nickel, the high nickel type cathode material, and so we decreased cobalt amount 85% decrease. So, it's a really challenge. And it's not only the decrease in the cobalt, but also increasing the capacity and the right weight.
And the more stable, it's a really, so the innovation to the exchange to the lithium-ion battery. So, the the role of the cobalt is a thought, that cycle life and safety, many things the key material, so then we saw really, so long time to investigate. So how to design the scientific material design, and how to mass production. It's also really challenge to that so that we collaborated with our supplier to the precursor to synthesis many things to try that. And in this time, in the 2020 we are providing started to the decrease, one side of the cobalt material and increasing world highest energy density. So also, and we are starting to the older generation or that 2170 cell is really challenging.
It's also and we, now we are brand new to that. So in the our technology roadmap, 2-3 years later, we can introduce the cobalt-free high energy density cell. That's the Panasonic leading company for the technology for the in this field. - Yeah, Watanabe-san is right.
The manufacturing as you drop, the cobalt content becomes harder and harder. You have a lot more moisture sensitivity. You have to really take care of that and it just becomes difficult. But it's something that is important societally, and it's also something that helps with cost, cobalt's expensive. So this is one of those things where reducing cobalt makes it harder for us to manufacture but ultimately does reduce the negative environmental impacts of batteries and reduce the cost, which is kind of fantastic. - Is there, it sounds like Panasonic, but also the industry as a whole has found some of these things, these developments and these sort of step functions in the evolution of lithium-ion batteries.
That they know they want to change, and they want to sort of bring to market, is there a sort of ideal lithium-ion cell that the company has sort of in its mind that it's reaching for? Or is this just sort of a process that plays out and as you learn more about the technology from manufacturing it so much and at such a rate that you find things out along the way that sort of changes your perception of, what the ideal lithium-ion cell would look like? - Yeah, yeah. I mean, every cell is kind of its own little miracle. When I started in the industry, two ampere hour cell was like, Oh, my God, it was so amazing.
It was the perfect cell, right. And then, the energy densities just, kept coming up. And every time someone would make the next great generation cell, it was like, well, that's the limit.
there's no way to get better than this. But that's kind of the enjoyment of engineering and of science is that you look at this and you go, well, maybe we could do something different. Maybe we can coat on thinner current collectors. Maybe we can do something different with the separator, maybe we can change the cathode material, maybe we can change the anode material. And all of these things keep going on.
So it is a really continuing area of research and investigation. A lot of deep science. A lot of development of manufacturing techniques to be able to actually produce these materials, these, the electrodes at the volumes, the speeds that we need. And then of course, now the cost pressure, because we wanna make electric vehicles more cost-effective, and we want them to replace IC engine vehicles throughout the world. So that's the next challenge.
There's no setting the perfect cell, there's only what's next. - Well, speaking about what's next, just a few months ago, Tesla unveiled its newest battery, it's called the 4680, which, is a reference to sort of the size of the battery for people who don't follow it so closely. But the big takeaway for this new battery cell is that, the company is promising big gains in energy efficiency, which would ultimately help improve range, lower cost, get to some of that sort of more affordable EV area, like you were talking about. And I know Panasonic has some involvement in the cell, I'd love to hear a little bit more about it. So what is Panasonic doing to work with Tesla on this 4680 cell? And when can we, expect to see real world results from that work? - So Panasonic already started to the develop, and that's sharing the target with Tesla. So and many things, of course, might be.
Most difficult point is a how to achieve the safety cell, larger type cell, and how to achieve the current collector. So the how to sort of deliver that current to that, so that material more . So it's a challenging point.
But so I believe so the Panasonic have so many experiences that about the other 30 years improvement experience, we understand what's the point to the increasing, improving to the point and what is the issue the expected, so then, so I believe so. We started from the this year, but so we can keep it and more for the capacity safety. And we provide so that our promising 4680 cell that so that perfect situation for that.
- We're definitely studying it from all aspects is an obvious onset, there's, there's some design, fundamental design issues with that cell, there's manufacturing issues, some of the manufacturing gets a lot more challenging at that, for that kind of a cell. And we look at this, and we say, okay, this cell is gonna have a number of merits, there's gonna be some demerits to it as well. So as we start making prototypes, and start considering this will bring forward what we think are the strengths and weaknesses of the cell and its design.
And for other customers, we get lots of questions about this, obviously, what form factor to pick for a particular battery pack is really dependent on that pack architecture, you may actually want a smaller cell for some types of battery packs, and a bigger one for others. And, that's something where the pack designer really has to think carefully about how they're gonna work through any number of problems for pack reliability and safety. With regard to which cell they're gonna choose.
- Moving away from sort of the business side of things, and back to sort of practicality so that, people at home who might not know as much about the ins and outs and hopefully learn a little bit today about it, but so that they get a sense of what's tangible about all of this. We have cars that are out there with, anywhere between 200 to 300 ish 350 in some of Tesla's case, miles of range, and charging times that are, in between like 15 minutes all the way up to, in an hour depending on where you're charging. Where should people expect this to be In the next, year or two? - I think you're gonna see a continuing trend of, vehicles becoming more cost-effective. Range is kind of a decision of the vehicle maker. So, I think you're gonna see the automakers trying some different ranges and seeing what the customer really wants. There are always gonna be customers who want longer ranges, there's also gonna be customers who really don't need that.
Don't wanna spend for that, so you're gonna see, I think more variety of vehicles that suit more different customer needs. - Yeah, so one thing I want share the information that the Panasonic focused on the technology to the to the energy density, how so world the highest energy density. So then, so in the future. So if people don't want so that 600 miles or 700 miles no need. It's a you can choose more short range, but for the fast charging or more stable life.
So we can show the change that not only the material design, but also include inside battery, the electrode design, we can change, so we can range. - Well, I think that's probably as good a place as I need to stop as much as I could talk to you guys all day about batteries. I wanna thank you both for being here, in sort of sharing a little bit of the history of Panasonic in this field and sort of where things might be headed. I wanna thank everybody who is watching at home.
And I know that this is all very strange, but happy that you have been able to sort of take some time out of your day. And join us at this virtual tech talk as part of the virtual CES 2021. And hopefully, people out there getting maybe a little bit more sleep than they typically do at this event. I know I'm gonna try.
So thanks again to you two, for joining me today and bringing some information about the crazy developments in battery technology out to the people who are watching at home. ♪ Tech talk ♪