I love driving in my car – stylish and practical battery production for the greener car generation
Kenny Leadbeater, Associate at SGP, looks at how the production and disposal of electric car batteries can marry form and function to produce a building where the leading edge technology inside is reflected in the creativity of the outside. Welcome to the Gigafactory.
The impact of climate change is demanding a transformation in the ways we humans behave and the impact we have on our one and only planet. One of the more actively developing changes is the move to electric vehicles, with worldwide sales of electric cars rising from approximately 130,000 in 2012 to 6.6 million in 2021.1 The UK government has brought forward its ban on the sale of petrol and diesel engine cars to 2030, by which date, the EU hopes that there will be 30 million electric cars on European roads.
This has led to the rise of the Gigafactory. But just what is a Gigafactory? The term Gigafactory was first used by Tesla, referring to their huge Sparks, Nevada factory where they manufacture batteries for their electric vehicles. ‘Giga’, the unit of measurement representing billions, applies to the capacity of output, measured in gigawatt hours.
Despite being hailed as a solid green alternative, electric vehicles, and particularly the lithium ion batteries they contain, pose sustainability problems of their own. Not only is the battery production process a long and resource intensive one, but there is also the question of recycling the batteries at their end of life. A BBC website article2 from last year suggests that, although exact recycling figures for electric car batteries are not available, the general consensus puts the figure at a disappointing 5%, and less in some countries. With a typical electric car containing slightly more than 7,000 single lithium-ion batteries, combined into larger power packs, the problem of recycling needs to be solved if electric cars are to be properly green.
As part of a recent project, we researched the options for not only a Gigafactory design that supports the very specific manufacturing process required, but also facilitates full “cradle-to-cradle” or “vertical integration” processing, i.e. incorporating CAM / Precursor CAM and production and recycling as part of an integrated process delivering a fully cyclical solution onsite.
If 100% of the resources within a battery cell can be – and are – recycled and reused in new cells, this zero waste circle is not only a sensible way of conserving the dwindling store of raw materials, but is also very good for our planet and the company’s bottom line.
Beginning with probably the most well-known, we reviewed the processes and buildings at four existing Tesla Gigafactory sites around the world before exploring factories by CATL, LG Chem, Panasonic, BYD, SK Innovation, Samsung SDI, Automative Cell Company, and Northvolt.
The research identified that although not all sites perform the same function, there is, for battery manufacture, a standard core process, a production line that is basically a huge conveyor belt made up of “production modules” – standardised units covering different activities that require 525m x 90m lanes. This allows for the chemicals and metals to be processed and calendared, being eventually charged in formation, aged and tested. So, form follows function. Whether laid down as a line or in a U configuration, any structure has to allow space and height for the installation of equipment and for the flow of the process to proceed unchecked.
Whilst it’s straightforward for an experienced architect to design practical manufacturing plants, we felt none of the designs unearthed in our research portrayed the energy and innovation that was happening inside. The new wave electric cars are some of the most beautifully designed vehicles in the world, and there is no reason that a Gigafactory shouldn’t express that creativity on the outside. For a recent real world development in the UK, we produced an initial concept design that, to us, conveys the excitement and importance of the technology as well as the heritage and context of the place itself. Not just another big shed but an expressive, dynamic and beautiful structure that uses the latest in architectural design and materials to create a statement of pride and purpose.
Our design envisages a sinuous external envelope, created by cladding a scalable rectangular space frame with rainscreen, which delivers a more sculptural form. By off-setting the two streamlined halves of the plant, our design delivers a 5million sq ft factory space that can be built in two or more distinct phases that responds to demand. We also played with the design, including elements such as water features and artificial trees that can generate energy through wind power. It was a practical expression of renewable energy and creating spaces that promote staff well-being, but in an innovative and fun way.
Aston Martin DB9 to Alec Issigonis’ Mini, VW Camper van to gull wing DeLorean, the car industry has led the way in beautiful, quirky and truly iconic design. When designing for the next great automotive shift into electric battery power, there is no reason that form cannot follow function in a factory that looks as good as the car makers best models.
(1: source@ iea.org article Electric cars fend off supply challenges to more than double global sales by Leonardo Paoli, Clean Energy Technologies analyst and Timur Gül, Head of the Energy Technology Policy Division)
(2: Electric cars: What will happen to all the dead batteries? By Emma Woollacott, Technology of Business reporter, 27 April 2021)