Keeping the Lights On: The Costs of Battery Testing Labs
Speeding up the shift to electric vehicles and embracing the new era of automotive development
The automotive industry is undergoing a critical transformation as it shifts towards electric vehicles, with major car manufacturers around the world committing billions to develop and produce electric models. Volkswagen has pledged to invest $86 billion in electric vehicles over the next five years, while General Motors has committed to investing $27 billion in EVs and autonomous vehicles through 2025. Other notable investments include Ford's $22 billion investment in EVs through 2025, and Mercedes-Benz's $47 billion investment in electrification through 2030. However, as these companies know all too well, developing batteries that meet the demanding requirements of electric vehicles is an incredibly complicated task. Despite all the hype about batteries, they are still an incredibly nascent technology, and there is much to learn about how they work, how they can be optimised, and how they can be made safer and more reliable. With this in mind, companies are investing heavily in battery research and development and estimates suggest that the global market for batteries could reach $400 billion by 2030.
To ensure that their batteries meet market requirements, automotive companies are investing heavily in battery testing and validation. This involves building advanced lab facilities capable of accommodating cell-level, module-level, and pack-level testing. The costs of such facilities can range from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, General Motors' new Battery Innovation Lab in Michigan is estimated to cost $40 million, while Volkswagen's Battery Engineering Lab in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is said to cost $22 million and Ford’s Ion Park lab, a staggering $185 million.
Capital Expenditures in Battery Testing Facilities
According to interviews with automakers, battery testing for each vehicle program or platform requires approximately 1,000 channels for cell-level characterisation testing, split across 3-4 cell types. This means that, for cell-level testing alone, automakers may need to invest at least £6 million purely on battery cyclers (a piece of lab equipment to charge and discharge batteries to analyse battery function and performance by measuring how the cells respond over time). This channel demand easily quadruples when module-level and pack-level testing is taken into account.
Furthermore, to ensure that batteries can operate reliably in any condition, automakers need to purchase climatic chambers for environmental testing. These chambers simulate different environmental conditions, such as extreme temperatures, humidity, and altitude. Different sizes of chambers are needed to accommodate cells, modules and packs. This can range from chambers as small as bedside chest drawers to chambers as big as a storage unit.
Automakers must also ensure that the lab is set up with proper safety features. This includes measures such as fire suppression systems, ventilation systems and emergency shut-offs, which are necessary to prevent accidents and ensure the safety of personnel working in the lab.
“A DVP (Automotive Design and Verification Programme) will not start until a coarse cell selection is made. Approx. 10 cell types may reduce down to 3 or 4 to take through to characterisation.”- e4Tech 2019 Battery Testing Report
Operational Expenditures: A Significant Investment
The ongoing operational costs of maintaining the lab can be just as significant. Cell characterisation tests typically run 24/7 for 2-3 months, while cell ageing tests run 24/7 for 12-18 months. This means that the personnel costs for running the lab are ongoing for extended periods, making it a significant investment for automakers. To keep the testing running around the clock, personnel shifts will need to be employed. Depending on the size of the lab and the scope of the testing required, this can easily grow to a headcount of 30 people, which represents overheads of roughly £3M/year.
Automakers must also pay for the ongoing electricity and maintenance costs associated with running the battery cyclers, climatic chambers, and other lab equipment. This does not include the replacement cost of cells and components for the lab equipment, as these components degrade over time and need to be replaced to ensure accurate testing results. Additionally, the rapidly evolving battery landscape means new chemistries are introduced frequently, and further investments are required to research new chemistries, customise testing rigs and train personnel to design new testing regimes.
As the push for electrification intensifies, investments in battery testing and development are necessary to ensure the quality and safety of electric vehicles. Given these high costs, there is a growing need for novel solutions in the market to test, validate, and model batteries. These solutions include the use of simulation and modelling software, which can significantly reduce the cost of physical testing.
Embracing Modelling and Simulation
To address the high costs associated with battery testing, automakers are increasingly looking to modelling and simulation software as an alternative. This approach allows engineers to virtually test battery designs and performance under various conditions, without the need for expensive lab equipment and resources. By using sophisticated computer algorithms, engineers can predict the behaviour of batteries, identify potential issues, and optimise designs for better performance and reliability.
Benefits of Modelling and Simulation
There are several key benefits to using modelling and simulation software in the battery development process:
Cost Reduction: By simulating battery performance, automakers can avoid the need for costly lab equipment and infrastructure. This can result in significant savings, freeing up resources for other areas of research and development. Additionally, it allows automakers to focus on their core competencies rather than battery research, testing and modelling.
Faster Development Cycles: Modelling and simulation can help to identify potential issues and areas for improvement more quickly than physical testing, allowing for more rapid iterations and improvements to battery designs.
Improved Safety: Virtual testing can help to identify potential safety concerns before they become a problem, ensuring that any potential issues are addressed before batteries are used in real-world situations.
Environmental Sustainability: By reducing the need for physical testing, modelling and simulation can help to minimise the environmental impact associated with battery development, including reduced energy consumption and waste production.
As the push for electrification continues to gain momentum, the role of modelling and simulation in battery development will become increasingly important. By embracing cutting-edge technologies, automakers can drive down the costs associated with in-house lab investments while ensuring that their electric vehicles are powered by safe, reliable, and efficient batteries.
About:Energy is a leading battery modelling company headquartered in London. The company was founded in 2021 by Gavin White and Kieran O’Regan, two PhD researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Birmingham respectively. About:Energy brings together deep-tech IP in battery testing, parameterisation and modelling to help the battery value chain supercharge battery development and application using their advanced cell digital twins.
From mine to end-of-life, About:Energy is building the world’s largest standardised battery database that can be used to inform decision-making in system design, lifetime prediction and cell optimisation. Organisations from automotive, aerospace and cell manufacturing use About:Energy’s tools to streamline their R&D, reduce time-to-market and enhance battery system performance.