Tesla is unique in the industry as the most vertically integrated company in the automaking world when it comes to manufacturing electric vehicles.
Tesla can attack any piece or component of its vehicle or the manufacturing process to make it better and more cost-effective.
This is what Tesla has done with the new revolutionary tablet batteries that will be used in its future electric vehicles.
Tesla announced a new tablet battery at its battery day event last year to critical acclaim.
It was not just an academic exercise for Tesla, as it was born out of a specific need.
Like other battery makers, Tesla has been purchasing its battery cells from suppliers that use their own proprietary chemistry and structure.
This was working well until Tesla looked into the future and discovered that its battery supply chain could cause a problem.
Tesla’s target is to sustain a 50 year on year growth in total vehicle output.
For instance, last year, Tesla shipped nearly 500,000 electric cars and set a target of 750,000 for 2021.
All these cars will only be shipped if they have a battery in each of them. According to its forecast, the problem was that the growth rate and the current production of batteries would not be able to match Tesla’s growth ambitions creating a bottleneck down the road.
A time would come when Tesla finished making its vehicles but needed to wait for batteries to be built before installing them.
The culprit here is the manufacturing process of the batteries, and we shall see more on that later.
That is a scenario. Tesla wants to avoid it at all costs. As a result, Tesla set to work on the core components of batteries, as we know them and came out with the tablet’s 4680 battery.
While the battery is a complex concept best left to the experts, it is possible to have a general idea of what Tesla has done here.
The common cylindrical lithium-ion battery uses cells made of several layers or strips of chemical compounds to store energy.
The layers are the cathode and anodes, with a separator layer in between them.
The cathode layer and anode layer then connect to the positive and negative terminals of the battery, using small metallic components known as tabs.
The problem with tabs is that they could be the downfall of the whole battery.
Despite performing a crucial function, they can affect battery performance and reliability if not done right.
For instance, when the tabs are welded onto the electrodes, they could be resulting welding burrs that can pierce the layer between the cathode and anode layers, causing an internal short circuit.
This has the potential of causing a fire. Also, inserting the separating layer between the cathode and anode layers introduces a time-consuming procedure during the battery manufacturing process.
Tesla managed to eliminate the need for the connecting tabs, hence the name tables battery.
Instead, the battery uses a conductive portion that runs along the electrode.
Using this method, there is less distance for the electron to travel before reaching the positive and negative terminals.
This is a win for physics, as explained by Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla.
The biggest deal is that Tesla has used a radically different approach in battery design.
It is what Tesla is known for anyway, taking problems apart to develop the best solutions.
With this first-principles approach, Tesla managed to change both the battery and the battery manufacturing process, making each of them better. I.E., both of them ended up being optimized.
It involved acquiring a few batteries focused companies, but Tesla pulled it off.
In effect, in one fell swoop, Tesla improved the efficiency and capacity of its battery reduced the cost of production and the time taken for production.
If You think this is nothing more than a concept and will take time before actual batteries can be made, you can’t be more wrong.
Tesla’s Drew Baglino reported that they were already ramping up the production of the tablet cells in their pilot plant.
Here is how the tables design makes batteries better.
As noted earlier, with the tablet structure, a time-consuming step has been eliminated in battery production.
That is the step of inserting the tab itself inside the battery. This means more battery in less time.
Remember, Tesla foresees a shortage of battery supply as its vehicle production increases and battery component suppliers can’t keep up with the pace.
It also means batteries with larger capacities. The 4680 appellation added to the battery name means the cells are massive at 48 millimeters in diameter and 80 millimeters in height, packing more active battery material.
This translates to a capacity to hold more energy in the same casing. Tesla sees a 16 percent increase in range over the same battery pack that uses the popular 2170 cells.
Based on this change in dimensions alone, Tesla did more than just rearranging and eliminating some of the components of the battery. It also changed up the materials used.
Tesla has been using silicone charged with lithium but then switched to raw silicone.
There is more to this. That is beyond the scope of this article, but this move has multiple positive effects.
First, more silicone could be squeezed into the battery with a resulting increase in energy, storing capacities.
Tesla estimates this could add twenty percent to the range of the car. Second, it cut down the costs, as silicone is cheaper to source than lithium slicing five percent of the cost of the battery.
And third, it simplifies the manufacturing process, greatly reducing the time taken by the process.
Tesla did a lot of work on the cathode of the tabs battery, and the results are astounding.
Batteries today use cobalt, which is the best choice from a chemical point of view.
However, the process of sourcing cobalt is a nightmare for environmentalists. They are toxic and produce a lot of wastes.
The supply chain is also unstable, as most of the global supply comes from a single country in Africa, the democratic republic of congo.
Any unrest in the country that disrupts normal mining processes could result in downtime in Tesla’s China factory.
Tesla switched to nickel in making its cathodes apart from lowering costs as nickel supply is less volatile.
The manufacturing process is less complicated, generates less waste, and consumes less water.
It also makes it easier to design a recycling process for the batteries.
With the tablet’s, design Tesla has also improved the thermal characteristics of the battery.
The tabs can be a source of resistance to the flow of electrons resulting in heat, which would have to be handled in a complicated and expensive way.
This means faster charging times and more efficient discharge for the car owner.
In all, Tesla has managed to cram dozens of improvements that add up to a big advantage. Battery production will never remain the same.
For Tesla, this means cheaper and better batteries. It also means a steadier supply to support its 50 annual growth ambitions.
The E.V. industry is very sensitive to battery costs as it represents a third of the bill of materials.
Tesla’s tablet batteries could halve the cost per kilowatt-hour.
In that case, we could see the cost of E.V.s dropping significantly or the range of E.V.s increasing dramatically or combining the two.
The 25,000 car that has proven to be elusive is now looking more like a reality.
Elon Musk himself had admitted that the cost of the battery is a key factor as to when and if the cheap electric car will be seen.
But with a cheaper tables battery, it may not be long before we see an unveiling. Will Tesla share its tablet’s design with other E.V. makers?
However, the tabless battery is a radical take on batteries, and it is not surprising that it is coming from Tesla, a startup that has always managed to outdo itself.
Just as Elon Musk enthused, eventually, every car company will have long-range electric cars.
Eventually, every company will have autonomy, but not every company will be great at manufacturing.
Tesla will be head and shoulders above everyone else in manufacturing. That is their goal.