Compared to its U.S. competitors, GM, aka General Motors—one of the country’s largest vehicle manufacturers—laid low on the electric vehicle (or EV) market for almost two decades. However, the recent announcement made by the company’s CEO Mary Barra at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, is a surefire sign that GM is dedicated to encapsulating a larger portion of the market for electric vehicles.
The automaker opened the fast-charging Ultium battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio in July 2020. This was with the aim to produce stackable, modular EV battery systems with reduced cobalt content that could offer as long as a 600-mile driving range.
New Life for the Ohio Automotive Industry
The Lordstown Assembly Plant had been serving as a manufacturing site for General Motors for more than 50 years before it was closed in 2019. This resulted in the automaker’s reduction of its workforce along with its local automotive industry prospects. Now, however, GM’s development promises to offer thousands of automotive jobs in the area. Earlier this year, in a joint partnership with LG’s chemical company, LG Chem, GM formed Ultium Cells LLC to lay the groundwork for Ultium battery production—thus equipping General Motors’ existing Ohio site with EV battery production tools.
General Motors’ (GM) modular Ultium battery vehicle platform stands suspended on display in the GM Technical Center in Michigan. Image Credit: Steve Fecht for General Motors.
Flexible Modular Propulsion System
The modular Ultium battery platform for electric vehicles was developed in the Michigan Tech Center (pictured above), revealing a stackable battery pack system that consists of large-format, pouch battery cells. When pouch cells are stacked (either horizontally or vertically), the resultant battery pack systems can produce between 50kWh and 200kWh. And according to Tim Grewe, GM’s director of global electrification and battery systems, the Tech Center’s pouch cell setup is roughly equal to the energy capacity of 20 small cylindrical Tesla cells.
The horizontal modular format of the cells can comprise six, eight, ten, or twelve modules stacked on vehicles with low rooflines, whereas the vertical modular format can comprise up to 24 modules stacked on high-roofline vehicles.
Modular stacking flexibility is a possible solution to a specific example of EV system challenges: the question of how best to integrate cells depending on each electric vehicle’s design. Indeed, such flexibility offers new vehicle blueprints that can be successfully incorporated into vehicle designs, regardless of how much they may vary (consider, for instance, the differences in power integration demands between a low-profile Chevrolet Corvette and a towering Hummer).
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (GM), presents GM’s electric vehicle technology at the GM Design Dome. In the background is GM’s slogan: ‘Our electric future is now’. Image Credit: Steve Fecht for General Motors.
Advanced Aluminium Battery Chemistry
The most significant advantage of the new Ultium battery pouch cells is that they involve reduced cobalt content (up to 70% less than the average solution)—and, in cobalt’s place, the use of aluminium, as part of a nickel-cobalt-manganese-aluminium (NCMA) technology, which extends battery life. Increased aluminium, as well as alternative cobalt replacements (such as lithium), are key to longer battery life and lowered manufacturing costs for the impending demand for EV batteries.
High-accuracy Wireless Battery Management System
Another advantage of the GM/LG Chem modular pouch batteries is the joint venture’s new wireless battery management system (or wBMS). The technology, developed in partnership with Analog Devices, will help GM manufacture various vehicle classes efficiently, using the single-level system with the highest degree hazard ASIL-D (Automotive Safety Integrity Level-D) guard.
Multiple modules—including integrated circuits and other hardware and software (for power, battery management, radiofrequency communication, and many more system functions)—can communicate wirelessly instead of through cable technology.
Reducing Battery Costs by One Third
The projected capacity of the Lordstown factory is 30 gigawatt-hours of battery cells per year. The new Ultium battery systems based on the said NCMA technology could reduce costs by one third—from the current, $145 per kWh spent to power the Chevrolet Bolt EV, down to below $100 per kWh by 2025.
A photograph of General Motors’ construction site for its Ultium battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio. Image Credit: Roger Mastroianni for General Motors.
Joint Ventures with Honda and Cadillac
LG Chem and General Motors will jointly contribute $2.3 billion to the factory (the construction site of which is pictured above). And this joint venture is not the only partnership undertaken by the automaker: another collaboration includes Honda, which has plans to use the stacked modular system in two of its vehicles, both of which will be sold on the U.S. and Canadian markets/ in the US. Cadillac Lyriq is also very much interested.
Automotive designers can now use the Ultium battery to design vehicle platforms for trucks, SUVs, low-rise cars, and commercial vehicles. If GM’s prognosis for cost reduction—chiefly by its reduction of the expensive metal, cobalt—still proves relevant by 2025, consumers may enjoy more affordable electric cars that could even resemble their favourite, traditional (albeit revamped) vehicle designs.