back to article Tesla's TOP SECRET gigafactories: Lithium to power world's vehicles? Let's do the sums

As we all know, Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk – with that forward-thinking "vision" the hyperloop hoper is known for – is touting around plans for a “gigafactory”. The top-secret factory – for it seems there will only be one to begin with – will build lithium battery packs for Musk's own electro-vehicle firm, Tesla …

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>I think that fuel cells – for at least some part of both the electricity storage and vehicle fleets – are going to be the preferred technology

Are we still using platinum for a catalyst? If so, would there not be similar supply constraints?

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Platinum

Isn't Musk planning to mine an Asteroid for its Platinum?

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I'll admit to being hugely biased here

I'm a fan of the other type of fuel cells, solid oxide one. Like Bloom uses (and my bias is that they're the major user of the metal, scandium, that I deal with in my day job).

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Happy

The commentard "bonkers"

Thanks you kindly for another authoritative piece.

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Pint

Rolls eyes...

1) So, lithium is common. Okay, thanks. Yeah, I'm constantly confusing lithium and astatine, so I appreciate you clarifying this.

2) Lithium typically makes up a small fraction of Li-ion batteries (maybe a few percent). Will there be a follow-on article to discuss the availability of ions?

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Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here

The problem with solid oxide IIRC is that you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work. The cost of a start/stop is therefore high, making it poor for automotive use, though it's pretty reasonable for continuous draw uses. All of these fuel cell systems need an auxiliary battery pack BTW as they're quite poor at instantaneous demand.

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Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

Funny, that reminds me of something. Something from those WWII films in Paris. Something about vehicles.

Ah, yes. Diesel engines.

Maybe there's a parallel there ? Diesel engines used to be cranky things to get started too (like me in the morning). Now they're very efficient and will be beating gasoline engines in market penetration at some point in the future.

Might something similar happen for these solid oxide cells ?

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Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

So if we give it another 50 or 60 years of research we may be able to start an oxide based fuel cell with less energy? This compares to Lithium Air cells that should be in production in 5-10 years and have 3 times the energy density of current Li Ion cells (think of a Tesla model S with a battery pack half the current size and a 450 mile range)

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Re: Rolls eyes...

The thing I find shocking is that there was no mention at any point of lions. Very much the elephant in the room that this discussion takes place in.

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Stop

Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here - @ Tim Worstal

I too have been a fan of fuel cells since I first heard about them being used in space flights. But where are they in everyday life? They can't be classes as AWOL as they never arrived in the first place.

A few years back I recall reading that the laptop battery problem would be soon solved by a small fuel cell that used ethanol (or was it methanol). The plan was that the cell would oxidise the alcohol and whenever it needed a top-up the user could inject alcohol from squirt bottle/pressure pack etc. in the way cigarette lighters are recharged. It made perfect sense to me and still does.

...But it too never eventuated.

For 50 years or so, fuel cells have been hyped and hyped but in practice they've come to absolutely nought.

Why so?

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Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

But aren'f Lithium Air cells primary cells (non rechargable?)

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Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

"Diesel engines...they're very efficient and will be beating gasoline engines in market penetration at some point in the future."

I'm guessing from the gasoline reference you are posting from the west side of the Atlantic. Here in the UK, Diesel passed petrol (gas) in terms of commercial vehicles many, many years ago and in the last few years in the personal car market too. Every filling station I go to has unleaded and diesel on every pump now whereas only 10-12 years ago, there was one, maybe two on a forecourt. Most filling stations have at least one LPG pump too.

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Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here - @ Tim Worstal

Fuel cells are being used. Bloom Energy sells them for example, Apple installs them at their data farms.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: blooming fuel cells

"Bloom Energy sells [fuel cells] for example"

Bloom Box, or elsewhere?

I thought the jury was still out on what's inside a Bloom Box, and/or whether it was economically significant?

http://www.theregister.co.uk/Tag/bloom%20box

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Trollface

Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work?

If there is enough global warming, this problem will diminish.

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Interesting. What about Gallium, etc, for LED lights?

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Ga....

We extract Ga from the Bayer Process tanks in the bauxite to alumina industry. One estimate is that there's some 8,000 tonnes pa Ga that passes through such tanks, most don't have the right doohicky to extract it. Globally we use 400 tonnes Ga a year.

Probably some margin in that.

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DJO
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Not just Li

Lithium batteries don't just contain Lithium so while there may be no shortage of Lithium the same is not necessarily true for all the other elements required. There are many different chemistries of Li battery some use Chromium, some Vanadium, others Silver, Cobalt or Manganese for the cathode or electrolyte and there might not be quite so much of these elements.

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Re: Not just Li

We don't know the chemistry of Tesla's new batteries in the gigafactory. But current ones use Lithium, Nickel, Cobalt, and Aluminum for the cathode. Electrolyte is carbon based. And anode is graphite.

All of these are simple to get overall.

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Meh

SIlly

There is no shortage of a whole range of elements, however lots of them are not economic at the moment to extract and process at the concentration that they currently exist at.

Unless you find an ultra cheap and reliable method of extracting something it will be cheaper to either extract it from something more concentrated or use an alternative.

Saying there is no shortage of lithium is like saying there is no shortage of oil, gas, gold or uranium. No one cares about the total reserves all that matters is the economically extractable reserves...

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Re: SIlly

That's actually Tim's point. Lots of elements are not economic at the moment to extract and process at the concentration that they currently exist at, but there is no shortage of them.

If the low-hanging fruit runs out, you don't run out of fruit - you just buy a ladder, and sell the fruit for a little bit more. It's not the apocalypse if Li prices increase by a bunch; and it's not like they can increase indefinitely (at some point, you're better off recycling).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: SIlly

In UK at least

This is backed up by the fact that they re-open coal, gold, tin etc mines every few decades to process the stuff that was not economically viable when it closed.

Once price point overtakes cost of extraction it becomes viable again for a while

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Battery recycling

According to Dilbert.

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Re: Battery recycling

That's EXACTLY what happened to the US in the Gulf War. They brought all these recycling containers, had everyone trained to separate and segregate properly and thought the Saudis would be quite happy. They were quite pleased with themselves. Then, some TCNs (third country nationals, probably Bangladeshis) just picked up each container, dumped it into the common garbage truck, and drove off to the dump. LOL!

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Re: Battery recycling

> just picked up each container, dumped it into the common garbage truck, and drove off to the dump.

Yup, and exactly the same thing happens in Europe, where only a percentage of the segregated containers are actually kept segregated all the way through. This is by design apparently, but I forget the rationale behind it. How much that percentage is varies by location between 0 and 100 percent.

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If you think that fuel cells are going to win over batteries, where is the fuel (hydrogen?) going to come from?

Assuming it's generated by electrolysis, the overall efficiency from grid to wheel is a lot lower than using batteries -- probably around 50% more energy in is consumed for the same energy out. Since the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power from the grid (not just sourcing it, but distributing it), anything that increases this requirement by 50% is a pretty bad idea.

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I agree with the main thrust of your post. But I guess its the balance of useability against efficiency that may settle the matter. Liquid fuels can be quickly refilled and if you want greater range you just fit a bigger tank. some common infrastructure is already in place (petrol stations) and fuel cells "may" have longer useful lives than batteries. So the recyling cost may swing the energy balance.

It will be interesting to see how the engineering and costs balance out. My gut says fuel cells but I wouldn't be suprised by batteries.

If we built induction track motorways we could charge cars whilst they drove along overcoming a significant useability hurdle.

*wanders off into a Heinlein-esque daydream*

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Unhappy

@Squeezer

"If you think that fuel cells are going to win over batteries, where is the fuel (hydrogen?) going to come from?"

You assume he's talking about a straight H2 fuel cell.

You know what happens when you assume, right?

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JDX
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Re: @Squeezer

When you ASSume, some ASS comes along and patronises you?

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Anonymous Coward

"the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power"

"Since the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power from the grid (not just sourcing it, but distributing it), anything that increases this requirement by 50% is a pretty bad idea."

I don't know where you are but in the UK the demand for electricity routinely varies between 20GW (summer overnight) to 50GW (winter evening peak), with a typical diurnal variation on any given day of very very roughly 20GW [1]. I'd expect that variation to be largely reflected at a neighbourhood level as well as a national level.

There's plenty of scope in there for the demand from large numbers of electric vehicles being charged overnight, especially if a bit of time management is added so they don't all start charging at the same time.

There's even scope for significant numbers of electric vehicles feeding *in* to the local distribution network at times of peak demand. It'd make at least as much engineering sense as solar PV ever could in the UK (there's not much solar PV available during the evening peak demand at any time of year).

Don't rule it out till you've done the numbers.

[1] http://gridwatch.templar.co.uk/

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There are two factors to consider here

Firstly, as you correctly point out, efficiency is a concern. Generating, transporting, and burning hydrogen may well be less energy efficient than generating, transmitting, and discharging an electrical potential.

However, there is a second consideration, and that is energy density. I don't know how the numbers play out, but I believe that chemical energy storage (i.e. fuels such as H2 or hydrocarbons) has an energy density orders of magnitude greater than electrical storage (batteries and supercapacitors). In other words, you can store more energy in a smaller space (a fuel tank as opposed to a car made largely out of battery), and have to re-fuel less often (and can do so more quickly) - a big consideration if, for instance, you have to drive several hundred miles, and stop to recharge every 50 miles.

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"It will be interesting to see how the engineering and costs balance out. My gut says fuel cells but I wouldn't be suprised by batteries."

You're forgetting the model where batteries get exchanged at 'petrol' stations. In that model, refuelling is quicker than filling a conventional car. The batteries are charged overnight on cheap electricity and you just buy the energy, leasing the container in the same way as Calor's model works.

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Re: induction track motorways

I can't help but imagine such a road at night in the rain. Headlights and raindrops and showers of sparks illuminating everything.

Beautiful.

But of course someone is going to come along and painstakingly explain that it won't happen because <technobabble>. And I'm sure the person will be right.

But I prefer my vision . . .

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You're forgetting the model where batteries get exchanged at 'petrol' stations. In that model, refuelling is quicker than filling a conventional car. The batteries are charged overnight on cheap electricity and you just buy the energy, leasing the container in the same way as Calor's model works.

Great, so long as the vehicle you buy is sold with old batteries and the range is measured using such. Otherwise you find you get the manufacturer specified range out of your first charge, then swap at a filling station and get some knackered old batteries in exchange which drops your range to half.

Anyione that doesn't believe me should feel free to send me a shinny new battery for my Lumia, and I'll send you my 1.5 year old battery that needs to be charged twice a day.

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Sorry, I don't see a several-hundred-pound anything getting swapped out quicker and easier than I can fill my tank. That would be a hell of a mechanism.

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Meh

@JDX

"When you ASSume, some ASS comes along and patronises you?"

Only if you're ignorant enough to deserve it.

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Tesla demoed a battery swap station here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5V0vL3nnHY

And no, it wasn't actually faster than the gas fill up, if you take into account that the Audi got more than double the range out of it, but it was close enough to count.

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"If we built induction track motorways we could charge cars whilst they drove along overcoming a significant useability hurdle.

*wanders off into a Heinlein-esque daydream*"

Might as well go the whole hog and just make the motorways into huge conveyor belts. The roads must roll!! That keeps the power centralised and you can plug the car in and get out for a walk or lunch until you reach your exit slip road ;-)

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Re: @Squeezer

> You know what happens when you assume, right?

Someone posts a link to XKCD 1339?

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Anonymous Coward

> And no, it wasn't actually faster than the gas fill up, if you take into account that the Audi got more than double the range out of it

That depends on how fast the Audi drove off after the fill-up, taking into account that North of 250 kph you can empty your tank after half an hour (assuming for the sake of discussion that it's a Sunday morning and you have a long enough stretch of unlimited Autobahn).

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Anonymous Coward

Except on motorways

Where the chain cafe's will charge you 20% more to exchange it.

Also how many different batteries do the recovery services have to carry for when you reach the exchange garage to find it closed down or a block of flats now?

The Texaco station local to me (central London) showed up on satnav's and search engines for 3 years after it became luxury apartments

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JDX
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re:a several-hundred-pound anything getting swapped out quicker and easier than I can fill my tank

Considering all 4 wheels can be changed on an F1 car faster than you can undo your seatbelt and get out of the car, this might be an unwise bet to make.

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Re: "the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power"

I'm in the UK and am perfectly well aware of our energy usage patterns. I didn't say the power couldn't be provided by the grid -- especially at night -- I said that if fuel-cell based cars were considerably less efficient overall than battery powered ones this would be a bad idea, since it would increase our energy consumption on transport, which Prof. Mackay tells us is a big fraction of our total consumption.

A large number of battery cars connected to the grid at night -- and also during the day -- is probably also one of the few energy storage schemes that has any chance of filling in the supply gaps from many renewable sources (no sun, no wind) because it acts as a massive distributed energy buffer.

Obviously there are many other issues with batteries including energy density and recharge time, but the fact remains that is you want to move a vehicle at the minimum energy cost using the power grid to change batteries in cars is the most efficient way to do so, not fuel cells. Given the amount of emphasis that is -- and is going to be -- placed on energy efficiency, this puts fuel cell cars at a big disadvantage.

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Synthetic LPG

Synthetic LPG is MUCH easier to transport & store than hydrogen.

Can use waste carbon and Electricity at a location cheap to make it.

Refilling "tank" is fast.

Can retrofit to petrol engines. 1979 I drove a Volvo running on LPG.

Can use fuel cells (not as easily as Hydrogen admittedly).

A demo PSU small enough for a laptop has been demonstrated.

Counter-intuitively it's cheaper to transport LPG large distances than Electricity.

Electricity Grid, Charger Electronics and the Battery recharging all lose significant percentage of Energy.

LPG fuelled has maybe x5 range of Lithium battery pack.

Lower production cost than new batteries + charge.

I think purely battery powered vehicles will remain a niche market. At the minute the "subsidies" (which include less or no Road Tax and no fuel duty) are benefiting only very rich people that can afford these Battery powered cars.

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Re: Synthetic LPG

And just complexify the reactions a bit & you can go up the list of aliphatics & aromatics. Next stop gasoline, then kero, then diesel/gasoil. It's all rather energy-intensive but we've got all sorts of non-fossil energy technologies working their way up the inventiveness & optimisation slopes.

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Re: Synthetic LPG

You missed one.

It turns out there are bacteria that excrete Propane in the same way as Methane. IIRC they were found in some deep undersea hot sulphur vents.

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Re: Synthetic LPG

"Electricity Grid, Charger Electronics and the Battery recharging all lose significant percentage of Energy."

Not really.

Grid losses < 10% (ref Mackay [1]), and most of that is in the low voltage end of things rather than the long distance distribution network.

Charger Electronics? Who cares, the total is negligible (if you mean wall wart class stuff) (ref Mackay again). If you mean something bigger, modern switched mode power supplies routinely achieve efficiencies over 90%.

Battery recharging ? You have a point there. But if the electricity is (or should be) 'free' because the supply exceeds the demand and the grid is therefore paying generators to switch off (courtesy of high inputs from wind etc), who cares about efficiency?

[1] http://www.withouthotair.com/ (not perfect, but a good place to start)

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Re: Synthetic LPG

Propane is as far as you really need to go on this sort of polymerisation chain. As soon as you get to propane, you have an alkane that can be liquified trivially and which does not need insanely high pressure or low temperature to keep it contained, plus the engines burning it usually run efficiently without generating much pollution.

Probably the best way to use propane is a hybrid engine design, using solid oxide fuel cells as the primary burner, and running the exhaust from the cells through a Stirling Cycle engine to recover some energy from the waste heat. You then have two good sources of electricity, plus a heat exhaust which can be used to feed into the vehicle's heating system by way of a heat exchanger.

A company in Illinois recently developed the lead-acid battery a little further, by replacing much of the lead in it with graphite. This makes their lead-acid cells lighter, more durable and less fragile than normal lead-acid cells. These sorts of batteries could be used as the temporary storage section of this hybrid electric vehicle.

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Re: Grid losses < 10%

I was going to dispute that, but it turns out you are perfectly right.

Thank you for educating me.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Grid losses < 10%

"I was going to dispute that, but it turns out you are perfectly right. Thank you for educating me."

And thank you for (a) checking the claim (b) the thank you :)

Thanks also to Prof Mackay and others, without whom...

[fades into distance, Oscars-style]

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