Design approaches for the next generation of EV battery manufacturing
September 20, 2023
September 20, 2023
Engineering the next generation of electric vehicle battery manufacturing plants requires specialized equipment, long lead times, and decarbonization
A version of this blog appeared as “A new spark” in Stantec Design Quarterly 19.
The market for electric vehicle batteries is hot. Electric vehicle sales are surging.
In 2022, the North American and European market for electric vehicles grew significantly. Nearly 300,000 new full battery electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in the US in second quarter of 2023. In Canada, 9 percent of new vehicles registered in 2022 were ZEVs (zero emissions vehicles). These include battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Global sales of light EVs—battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids—topped 10 million in 2022. EVs are popular.
To power the EVs, we’re going to need a lot more factories that make EV batteries. The headlines in North America today are talking about new advanced manufacturing facilities breaking ground to make solar panels, microchips, and EV batteries. While the first two have much in common—silicon—the third factory type has its own set of challenges.
According to McKinsey, the EV industry will need 200 new gigafactories to meet demand. It will require $400 billion in capital by 2030. “But complications during the design and construction phases can delay production start by 12 months or more,” McKinsey adds. Companies that plan to build large-scale electric vehicle battery (EVB) factories in North America need to be aware of the issues and challenges that we’ve seen in the first generation EVB factories. These include serious roadblocks that could affect production timelines; they also offer options to find efficiencies and save money in the long run. Let’s look at five.
Manufacturing EV batteries requires special equipment. For example, these factories need a super dry environment, requiring unique dehumidifiers. With EV production ramping up across the globe, demand for this type of equipment has exploded.
The supply chain issues we saw during the pandemic are fading. But it’s still very hard to procure the chillers, fans, electrical gears, substations, and variable frequency drives these factories need. It can take a year or longer to get the equipment. It’s important for factory designers to assess equipment needs and order early to meet project milestones and open on schedule.
The factory requires fans for ventilation and exhaust, air handlers, heat pumps, and dehumidifiers to maintain ideal conditions for EVB production. Components made and assembled to tight tolerances have minimal variation in dimension, sizing, and fit. To achieve these ideal conditions, the equipment must meet these tight tolerances. And the equipment tends to be finicky. Once it arrives, it takes a month or two for manufacturers to calibrate the gear to the necessary tolerances to produce batteries.
Companies that plan to build large-scale electric vehicle battery factories in North America need to be aware of the issues and challenges that we’ve seen in the first generation EVB factories.
We must approach our factory design with well-being and the environment in mind. But battery production produces several toxic substances. Our designs must mitigate and control them.
Be aware that mass producing batteries can create strange substances that lab tests don’t always predict. Typically, one of the most critical processes in EV battery manufacturing involves filling a canister with lithium. We’ve learned from small-scale production that we need to control the exhaust and fumes produced during this process. On a larger scale, we’ve seen this process produce a troublesome “goo” that can take a heavy toll on equipment, tools, and fans.
Substances that only appear as trace amounts can wreck production when produced at scale.
Today, lithium batteries are the industry standard. So, we should design the EVB factory to produce those, right? Not so fast.
The industry is exploring various alternative battery storage types (sodium ion, magnesium ion, solid-state batteries, etc.). So it’s entirely possible that an EVB in 10 or 20 years may not use lithium at all. Can we design a factory that evolves with technology and scientific advances for battery production over time?
Manufacturing batteries is basic to electrification. It is a big part of what we need to do to reduce society’s carbon appetite.
So, why aren’t we making factories for EVBs as low carbon as possible? We should examine opportunities to reduce the power and water appetites of advanced manufacturing facilities. Heat recovery is an approach we can explore in design for EVB factories. For instance, EVB factories have a large demand for compressed air. These compressors need to be cooled, but we can use the heat they reject. We can engineer systems that capture the rejected heat and use it as preheating for the factory space, regenerating dehumidifiers, or heating potable water.
With these five challenges in mind, here are a few best practices for EV battery factory design.
Advanced manufacturing facilities are complex. Why? They require a variety of processes, technology, and equipment. This presents hidden opportunities for our integrated design team to apply its ingenuity. Ideally, we’ll save our manufacturing clients energy, expense, and time. We can make these critical buildings more resilient.