Gigafactories: New Ideas, New Issues?

Tesla was founded in 2003 by South African-born entrepreneur, inventor, and engineer Elon Musk. Tesla’s first product that really grabbed people’s attention was the Roadster in 2008, which was the first mass-produced electric sports car. This was followed by the very popular Model S in 2012, as well as the Model X in 2015. Recently, Tesla just started production of the Model 3, a mass-market electric sedan that starts at $35,000 before any government incentives. Other up-and-coming Tesla products include the Powerwall and Powerpack, which are essentially battery packs for homes and businesses respectively, designed to charge and store energy from solar panels during the day and to use that energy at night. With the popularity of these products growing rapidly, a solution was needed in order to be able to keep up with the demand of the lithium-ion batteries required for Tesla’s products.

In November of 2013, Elon Musk first made public mention of a gigafactory. This factory would be an enormous facility that would produce every lithium-ion battery pack that was needed for all of Tesla’s products. What really set this gigafactory apart from other ordinary factories was the amount of lithium-ion batteries that this one gigafactory would produce. In order to meet their planned production rate of 500,000 cars per year, not including the Powerwalls and Powerpacks, Tesla would have to make more lithium-ion battery cells than every other lithium-ion battery manufacturer in the world combined. The gigafactory achieves this.

hero.jpg
Rendering of Tesla’s completed Gigafactory (Source: Tesla)

In addition to achieving this enormous production rate of lithium-ion battery cells, the gigafactory has numerous other accolades. The gigafactory, once fully completed in 2020, is expected to easily be the largest building in the world by footprint. Also, despite a factory of this size, the gigafactory has many green aspects about it. The roof is painted white in order to better reflect light, keep things cool, and ensure that the roof-mounted solar panels work as efficiently as possible. But the single most impressive green accolade about the gigafactory is that the entire building will run off of 100% renewable energy. The majority of the energy will be generated by the roof-mounted solar panels that were previously mentioned, with the remaining energy being supplied by wind and geo-thermal power.

tesla-gigafactory-size.jpg
(Source: BGR)

With the gigafactory being as green as it is despite its enormous size, one must wonder what downside is there to this building. One potential issue that hasn’t directly been addressed is lithium supply. Elon Musk, has mentioned that he plans on having at least four more gigafactories in the U.S. alone, with the potential of having over 100 gigafactories worldwide. Other companies have already shown interest in building gigafactories of their own.

With the one gigafactory requiring more lithium than every other lithium-ion battery manufacturer in the world combined, as well as the thought of there potentially being over 100 of these factories worldwide, how could this affect the world’s lithium supply? Could this lead to a shortage, consequently increasing the price of lithium? Could a shortage lead to unsafe lithium mining practices in order to meet demand? Other than a lithium shortage, are there any other potential issues that could arise? The rise of gigafactories creates a significant change of magnitude that certainly deserves more attention and discussion than it is currently receiving.

 

Sources:

https://www.tesla.com/gigafactory

https://www.tesla.com/energy

11 mindblowing facts about Tesla’s Gigafactory

Tesla Gigafactory is already producing more batteries than any other factory in the world, says Elon Musk

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “Gigafactories: New Ideas, New Issues?

  1. Tesla is a remarkable company that is doing a good job of setting an example for other manufacturers. Considering the amount of energy used in any manufacturing practice, it is unbelievable they are able to run a factory this size 100% off of renewable energy. The world’s supply of Lithium is definitely a concern. I’m not sure what the current supply looks like but like any other material on Earth, it is not unlimited.

    Like

  2. I think the attention here needs to be placed on the potential success of running the largest manufacturing plant in the world solely on renewable energy. That is a huge accomplishment. The question of possible lithium shortages deals with battery technology itself. While this is a concern, I do not think the building of this factory will be the catalyst for a shortage. Battery research and development will need to be innovated and improved down the road, especially with the rise of renewables, but the major takeaway I have from this is the accomplishment of running a manufacturing plant of this magnitude on renewable energy. This might increase confidence across the country of the feasibility of utilizing green energy for manufacturing in the southwest.

    Like

  3. I think what Tesla is doing as a company is great and this gigafactory is an example of that. Not only will these factories be green, they will also provide many people with jobs. The downside to Tesla is their use of lithium in their batteries. This is the superior battery of the time right now, but how much good are they actually doing if they are having to mine the lithium. I haven’t done research, but to me, mining lithium isn’t that much different that mining for any other mineral. It destroys the surrounding areas and ecosystems. With Tesla wanted to expand the lithium-ion battery market, we have to think of how we are getting these materials.

    Like

  4. Its quite impressive what Tesla is planning on doing with their manufacturing process. The fact that they plan to supply more lithium ion batteries than all other combined manufacturers is impressive alone. The other is that this huge building can be run fully on renewable power. If they achieve this, they will have set the standard for every major company around the world. They will become the poster child of American engineering, development, and renewable energy efforts. Unfortunately, by creating such a demand for lithium ion will create an increase in lithium ion mining. Lithium mines pretty much destroy the entire landscape and ecosystem that they contain. Is it worth destroying acres and acres of ecosystem to have solar powered cars? I think we are so ready to jump into the “renewable energy” move towards solar power that we often neglect the implications it may bring to our world.

    Like

  5. A major process that needs to be established before the proposed gigafactory boom, is an effective recycling and recovery process. If these lithium batteries do not end up in the right location after their lifetime, it will be detrimentally toxic to disposal facilities. A program needs to be set up that incentivizes and potentially forces everyone who purchases a powerpack to send to a proper disposal. In addition, much needs to be done on the forefront of lithium recycling research.

    Alternatively, this huge leap toward energy storage technology and renewable facilities will at the very least, even if it is not successful as a project, greatly accelerate our knowledge on these subjects. This is necessary and highly beneficial for humanity because these two technologies are promoted to have the capacity to solve a potential energy crisis.

    Like

  6. Elon Musk has been praised thus far in his career for being an innovative genius. One has to wonder with this if he is being extremely long-viewed (“the future, today” sort of thinking) or has bitten off more than he can chew. The sheer cost and amount of materials required to build such a facility and infrastructure to support it would be insane. Project length to complete such places would (in my opinion) need a major push from other companies or governments in order to boost labor supply so that these things do not take decades to construct. One could assume he would have portions of the factory completed to begin operation while the remainder of the gigafactory was still being constructed, but this would beg the question of “why build one large facility instead of thousands of smaller ones?” Assuming these issues are dealt with and such a marvel was constructed, the dynamics of our world could drastically change. Populations would flee many areas to be closer to these new facilities for job opportunities. Entire communities could spring up and cause a major urbanization in the proposed areas. So while the new gigafactory may run on all renewables, the environmental drawbacks to land development (and transport of the materials to and from the mines and factories) could negate the positives. Then again, this construct may just be the answer to producing big while still being green.

    Like

  7. Very cool! Although my inner critical engineer immediately begins asking the questions, what are the environmental and energy impacts of mining the lithium? Will disposal of these batteries be able to keep up with the production? Will the countries responsible for mining lithium and other materials required do so in a responsible way?

    We did a LCA on electric vs fuel combustion cars and the energy consumption difference was not as much as you would like to be. Plus the mining and production of batteries comes with its own set of toxic concerns. Although I am generally in support of Tesla because energy consumption from transportation will not improove unless someone is on the path to investing it.

    Like

  8. I remember hearing about the release of the model 3 from this past summer. It got me wondering about the information that you mentioned above. If these model 3’s catch the public’s attention and start rolling off the lots consistently, there will be a major impact felt upon the lithium industry. I am curious to know the practices of mining lithium, cause it may be greatly increased over the next decade and so on.

    Like

  9. This article was very interesting to read and shed light on a subject I hadn’t really looked into. I did a little research because i was interested in how this would affect the supply of lithium in the world. This website ( http://www.mining.com/web/lithium-supply-demand-story/) a conservative yet extensive calculation regarding the supply of lithium in the world and how that relates to our needs if we increased demands for electric cars. Basically, I was able to conclude is that with the worlds supply of lithium would last around 70 years if we were producing and replacing roughly 500,000 new electric cars in the United States per year which would bring our emissions down by 3% over a 26 year period. So, maybe my calculations are wrong but it doesn’t seem like our lithium supply in the world would sustain the demand for multiple gigafactories because just one factory would deplete our lithium in 70 years.

    Like

  10. I wish more of our companies were as innovative and status quo challenging like Tesla. If our companies and government had been this bold years ago, the United States could be at the forefront of the battery, solar panel, wind turbine, green industry within the world. Tesla’s sales strategy was genius and what long term planning can do. In 2008, they produced the sports car and showed how electric cars can accelerate faster than diesel ones. It was expensive, yet cool. Tesla showed that electric cars can be cool, and people immediately thought of Tesla as a world class company. Over time, they kept producing amazing vehicles, yet lowered the price every time. Soon, I think they will do it again and truly corner the electric car business. Go, Tesla!

    Like

  11. I think this is fantastic at showing the world new and innovative ways to improve the way we make and do things. The goals Tesla are pursing are very important but this is a good example of how we can’t loose sight of the larger picture and how even good things can have unintended negative consequences.

    Like

  12. I’m just a tiny bit obsessed with Elon Musk. His endeavors are always so innovative and interesting, and because he made so much money with PayPal he can afford to fund things that are research-intensive and not necessarily economically viable in the short term. The construction of the gigafactory shows that Tesla understands that the battle with electric cars (and with renewable energy in general) is in the battery. Their vision is to roll out more affordable electric cars in the future, and to do that they know they need to control the supply of batteries so gigafactories are a necessary step. (PS If you’re bored would highly recommend this TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/elon_musk_the_future_we_re_building_and_boring#t-2965)

    Like

  13. In Dr. Li’s LCA class, we learned about accounting for all raw inputs and processes required to create a product, no matter the size or complexity. In the class, we addressed the pros and cons of lithium-ion batteries like the ones Tesla is aiming to produce in mass quantity. While the total environmental impact of these batteries is less as compared to an internal combustion engine, certain impact indicators denoted severe environmental impact from these lithium batteries, specifically related to the mining of rare earth metals such as lithium, as well as the runoff produced from these practices.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s