General Motors wants to make battery electric vehicles more affordable while also boosting their range, and a key part of that is making the batteries themselves cheaper. As a result, it’s establishing the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center in southeast Michigan, which next year will start focusing on improving batteries and slashing the cost per kWh by 60 percent from current prices.
It’s been generally bad news for GM in the battery stakes lately, especially after every single Chevy Bolt produced from 2019 to 2022 had to be recalled due to a fire risk. That issue is primarily with the battery packs supplied for the Bolt by LG, which was already an interim solution before GM could get its own battery manufacturing up and running, as it plans on doing now.
The center is set to open in 2022. On a call with the media, including The Drive, GM director of battery cell engineering and strategy Tim Grewe said that we can expect to see technology developed in the center by mid-decade. So, by 2025, the fancy stuff being developed could actually be in production cars you can buy—and not exclusively the luxury ones like the Hummer EV.
Although GM was reluctant to offer firm timelines or figures, it did emphasize that the idea was to move as fast as possible by getting the research from the center out onto the roads. In particular, the aim is to bring the cost of a kWh of battery storage down to a quoted $60, and made in the U.S.
The first order of manufacturing is going to be the second-generation Ultium battery packs, which will power the Hummer EV, as well as GM’s next premium models (and some of Honda’s). It’s intended for larger vehicles, unlike the Bolt, which has always been GM’s cheaper EV, with its target—at least, pre-recall—to continue hammering down the price.
The site is named after former GM director of battery systems and electrification, Bill Wallace. Wallace led on developing the battery systems in the Chevrolet Volt 1, Volt 2, Malibu Hybrid, and Bolt EV and was key to progressing the Ultium project until succumbing to cancer in 2018.
As an innovation center, it will have advanced facilities for lithium processing and battery building and testing, including cell test chambers, cell formation chambers, a material synthesis laboratory for producing cathode materials, a slurry mixing and processing lab, a coating room and electrolyte production lab. It’s also promising a forensics facility for studying what goes wrong (or right) with batteries under certain conditions and looking forward to making more recyclable cells and packaging, something that was explicitly referenced as part of the facility’s brief and is a priority in President Biden’s current plans for electrification.
The site is expected to be around 300,000 square feet to start with, with the potential to grow. Although GM wouldn’t be drawn on any precise numbers, spokespeople confirmed that “hundreds” would be employed directly at the site including new hires and existing GM employees. Software engineers, in particular, were specifically referenced, with battery management software being a key area for longevity and capacity management, including regenerative braking and smart charging.
Michigan was chosen for the site because GM’s existing engineering is focussed there, according to Grewe. But building its own in-house research facility doesn’t mean that GM is giving up on its partnerships with SolidEnergy (who make solid-state innovations) or even LG, after the disastrous Bolt recall fiasco. Both partners were still named by executives as current collaborators.
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