In my previous post, I suggested that we are on the cusp of putting electric vehicle (EV) range issues behind us. Two distinct technologies are overcoming the range problem: the growth of fast charging networks and the rise in the energy capacity of EV batteries. In this post, we are going to drill further down into the energy capacity issue.

In the past, the battery constraint has been size and weight. Producing a battery that can deliver 400 or 500 miles of continuous driving is relatively easy: you just make the battery ever bigger. The problem has been delivering the required energy capacity within a sensibly sized and weighted unit. The Tesla Model 3 battery comes in at 478 kg, contains 75 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy and can propel the car 310 miles between charges according to the US Department of Energy. In the Tesla Model 3, for every 1 kg of battery we get 157 watt hours (Wh). This is called the specific energy of the battery, or the gravimetric energy density, and is measured in watts-hours per kilogram.

I mentioned that the Model 3 has a 478 kg battery. We are really talking about the battery pack here, which incorporates a number of battery modules, which in turn incorporate a number of battery cells. As is the case of many things EV, we are frequently faced with the problem of comparing apples and pairs. That is, if we want to compare specific energy figures between vehicles, we need to compare like with like: battery pack with pack, module with module or cell with cell. The building of a battery, from components, to cells, to modules, to the pack can be seen in the illustration below (source: here):

The combination of the battery elements is a complex interlocking process involving a lot of different disciplines such as chemistry, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. And it also involves trade-offs. Securing specific energy gains in one area can result in losses in another.

For example, the Tesla Model 3 uses state-of-the-art Panasonic ‘2170’ battery cells that are likely the highest specific energy battery cells deployed in mass production cars. (Note that the 2170 number represents the dimensions of the battery cell not the battery chemistry; 21 mm is the diameter and 70 mm the length.) But the battery chemistry employed in these cells is quite difficult and requires a sophisticated cell management and heat control system to prevent thermal runaway; i.e., the battery catching fire. Obviously, the more sophisticated and complex the cell management system, the more the overall battery pack is bulked up.

Of course, by definition, battery cells have a far greater specific energy (gravimetric energy density) than the battery pack since all the battery pack parts surrounding the cells have zero specific energy. In the Tesla Model 3 tear down that I referred to in a previous post, Jack Rickard extracted the four modules that go into the Tesla Model 3 battery pack. They are slightly uneven in size. Two of the modules contain 1,058 cells and two contain 1,150 cell, so the overall battery pack has 4,416 cells in total. Jack also weighed the modules: in total they came to 362 kg. So with usable energy of 75 kWh, the modules alone have a specific energy of 75 kWh divided by 362 kg, which translates to 207 Wh/kg (Jack blogged about this tear down here). From the top of the post, remember that the specific energy of the battery pack in its entirety was 157 Wh/kg.

We can go even further down to the specific energy of the individual cells. Before we do that, here is a short video of a Tesla Model 3 ‘2170’ cell being dissected:

Surprisingly, I’ve struggled to find an official weight for each individual battery cell. From a Tesla forum conversation, I have seen a figure of 66 grams quoted, but I can’t verify this. Until I get a definitive number, however, I will run with 66 grams as it likely to be only a few grams out. So if we have 4,416 cells each weighing 66 grams, that gives us a total weight for the cells alone of 291 kg. This time, let’s divide the total energy of the battery pack, 75 kWh, by this new figure. The results is that each cell has a specific energy density of 257 Wh/kg. Compared with the theoretical maximum specific energy density of around 400 Wh/kg, you can see that there is the potential for some future efficiency gains but not transformational ones.

In the Model 3, Tesla has a car that can compete with ICE rivals such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, but for Tesla to utterly dominate all its competitors it would be helpful if we could get its driving range even higher than 310 miles between charges. How easy is it for Tesla to do that within the existing battery chemistry limitations highlighted above?

First, let’s focus on the non-cell components in the battery pack. We already established that the battery cells weigh 291 kg in total. If we take that number away from the overall battery pack weight of 478 kg, then the non-cell components weigh 187 kg. Let’s say that through mechanical and electrical engineering incremental improvements, we reduce the non-cell weight of the battery by 12% per annum for three years; in other words by roughly one third. That will free up about 65 kg out of that 187 kg.

Next we allocate that 65 kg to install more cells. So the cell weight goes from 291 kg to 356 kg. That’s a 22% increase. If we hold the specific energy of the cells constant at 257 Wh/kg, we now have a 91.5 kWh cell pack that should give us a range of 378 miles.

Turning now to the battery chemistry, we recognise that specific energy improvements are harder to achieve in this area than improvements in electrical or mechanical engineering. So for the cells, let’s assume Tesla and Panasonic improve the specific energy by 6% per annum for the next 3 years. That will result in specific energy going from 257 Wh/kg to 306 Wh/kg, an improvement of 19%. With our 19% improvement, the battery now goes from 91.5 kWh to 109 kWh and range improves from 378 miles to 450 miles between charges. At a 450-mile range, I declared in my previous post that all worries over EV range would disappear.

In a perfect world, I would like to not only get up to a 450-mile range but also shrink the battery weight and size. But for that, we probably need to wait for a jump in battery technology that delivers specific energy north of 500 Wh/kg. There are a variety of advanced batteries in the pipeline that aim to do just that as can be seen below. Nonetheless, we have yet to see any that are close to commercial production.

The conclusion of this post, nonetheless, is that even with only incremental improvements in existing technology, EV powertrains (plus their batteries) are getting very close now to matching or exceeding ICE powertrains (plus their fuel tanks) in every single area of performance. Throughout this discussion, however, I have left out one critical parameter: cost. That will be the subject of my next post.

For those of you coming to this series of posts midway, here is a link to the beginning of the series.