GM building battery R&D center on Warren Tech Center campus to drive down EV costs

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. on Tuesday announced a new, multi-million-dollar battery research & development center on the campus of its technical center in Warren as part of a bid to reduce the cost of electric vehicles and the batteries that power them.

The facility will be called the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center, a tribute to Bill Wallace, a former GM director who is credited with playing a leading role in the development of the company's advanced battery technology and who continued to work for the company until his death from cancer in 2018.

The approximately 300,000-square-foot facility is now under construction and slated for completion in mid-2022. The Detroit automaker said the center will help accelerate developing technologies including lithium-metal, silicon and solid-state batteries, as well as production methods that can be applied at battery cell manufacturing plants.

“The Wallace Center will significantly ramp up development and production of our next-generation Ultium batteries and our ability to bring next-generation EV batteries to market,” Doug Parks, GM executive vice president, global product development, purchasing and supply chain, said in a statement. “The addition of the Wallace Center is a massive expansion of our battery development operations and will be a key part of our plan to build cells that will be the basis of more affordable EVs with longer range in the future.”

This is a rendering of the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center that GM plans to open at its Warren Technical Center campus.

GM has a joint venture with LG Energy Solution, Ultium Cells LLC, through which it plans to build four U.S. battery cell manufacturing plants. The first two plants are being built in Lordstown, Ohio, and Spring Hill, Tennessee. The locations of the other two have not yet been announced.

The automaker has said it will invest $35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicle initiatives through 2025. It is targeting annual EV sales of more than 1 million by 2025 globally, plans to introduce 30 EVs globally by 2025, and aims to only sell zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

GM is one of several global automakers now investing heavily in battery cell manufacturing as they all chase competitive advantages in the electrification transition. And all are eyeing ways to drive down the costs of battery cells as they aim for mainstream EV adoption and profitability, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst leading e-mobility for Guidehouse Insights.

“If you can find a way to make it cheaper, then you have the opportunity to increase your profit margins or to make the product more affordable," he said. "In this case, automakers need to do both. They need to make EVs more affordable for the mainstream. If you’re going to get to 100% EVs, you’ve got to have useful EVs that cost in the low $20,000 range or perhaps even less, to replace those low-end gasoline vehicles. But you also need to make it profitable.”

GM declined to comment on the number of employees that will be hired or moved to the facility, except to say it foresees "hundreds" of development, research and manufacturing engineers working there. The automaker also declined to comment on the cost of the center, except to say it was initially investing "hundreds of millions of dollars" in the project and expects to expand it in the future.

Wallace Center

GM said in a news release that it looks to expand the design capabilities of  battery chemistries and improve the range of future electric vehicles it produces. The Wallace Center's work, the company said, will help speed the development and commercialization of more-affordable, longer-range EV batteries.

GM said the facility would be closely integrated with the automaker's other battery development sites on the Warren campus, including a chemical and materials lab that leads battery development and the Estes Engineering Center lab that works on battery validation. 

The center will include cell test chambers, cell formation chambers, a material synthesis lab where GM can design its own cathode active materials, a slurry mixing and processing lab, a coating room, an electrolyte production lab, a forensics lab with material analysis equipment and advanced software, and a data farm.

A GM Research and Development electrochemist forms a prototype battery cell in the fabrication lab within GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. GM is projecting that its second-generation Ultium packs, expected later this decade, will cost 60 percent less than the batteries in use today with twice the energy density expected.

GM is eyeing cost reductions of at least 60% in the next generation of its battery cells, compared to the LG-supplied battery cells that power GM's current offering of electric vehicles, the Bolt EV and EUV. The Wallace Center, executives said, will play a significant role in that, pointing to improved energy density as a driver of those potential savings.

"The Wallace Center will be capable of building large-format, prototype lithium-metal battery cells for vehicle usage beyond the small-scale lithium-metal cells typically used in handheld devices or research applications," according to a news release. "These cells could be as large as 1,000 mm, nearly twice the size of the initial Ultium pouch cells and will be based on GM’s proprietary formula."

Abuelsamid noted that the battery packs in today's electric vehicles are largely consumed with components that are not actually storing energy. 

"By going to larger and larger cells, you reduce the total amount of volume that's taken up by the cell packaging ... and you progressively increase the total percentage of the pack volume that is dedicated to actual, useful stuff: the active electrode volume," he said.

The center is expected to build its first prototype cells in the fourth quarter of 2022.

"We've got these great material labs ... and now in parallel, we can start processing these things into a large-format cell and then feed it right into our pack and vehicle development," said Tim Grewe, GM's director of global battery cell engineering and strategy. "We can get all these innovators realizing all the challenges and correcting it in a much faster manner, all on the Warren Tech Center."

Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co. earlier this year announced plans to establish a $100 million global battery research and development center, dubbed Ion Park, in Romulus. The Dearborn automaker is refurbishing a 270,000-square-foot facility, where it says about 200 employees will work within 18 months of renovations being complete. Workers there will research and test battery technologies and pilot advanced manufacturing techniques to help Ford boost battery-cell volumes, improve battery range and reduce costs.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski