GM 'Ultium' battery technology promises more flexibility, lower prices

More packaging flexibility, larger capacity

GM is rolling out details about its next-generation electric vehicles, and a big part of the charge is new battery technology, as part of a larger "Ultium" electric propulsion system. The company announced that, instead of solid, rigid battery cells found in current EV battery packs, it will start using large versions of pouch-style batteries.

Pouch battery cells are pretty much what you imagine, instead of all the components being packaged in a hard shell, they're in a flexible, bag-like shape — in this case shaped in long, flat planks. They're space efficient and can be packaged in many different ways, for instance they can be stacked horizontally or vertically within individual modules that make up the pack. This has many obvious benefits when you may need to have a wide variety of battery pack shapes for different kinds of vehicles, and you want to pack as much capacity in as little space with as little weight as possible.

GM said that the Ultium cells will use a new NCMA (Nickel, Cobalt, Manganese and Aluminum) chemistry that reduces the amount of rare cobalt needed by about 70%, enabled by the new aluminum cathode.

GM is planning for large-capacity battery packs. It says its new design can support anywhere from 50 kWh to 200, the latter of which would be good for a range of about 400 miles. The smaller size of 50 kWh is still no slouch, since the Bolt EV has a capacity of 66 kWh and delivers 260 miles of range. Depending on the car, the batteries will be either 400- or 800-volt units, probably based on the power demands (i.e. economy cars could make do with 400 volts, whereas performance cars could use the 800-volt versions). DC fast charging capabilities will range from 200 kWh on the 400-volt batteries to 350 kWh on the 800-volt batteries.

GM also says its batteries will be getting cheaper, in part because of its collaboration with LG Chem. It says batteries will drop below $100 per kWh of capacity in the near future. Adding to cost reduction will be the fact that GM will be able to have far fewer motor and battery combinations than it does with internal combustion powertrains. GM says it will have just 19 combinations of motor and battery, versus its current 550 engine and transmission options.

Among those future electric options will be just about any combination of drive wheels you want. GM will have EVs with front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The company also noted a high-performance variant of the all-wheel drive powertrain and that such a car could have a 0-60 mph time of under 3 seconds.

GM is partnering with LG Chem to build its Ultium batteries at a new plant in Ohio. The automaker plans to source as much of the materials as possible from North America, and continue to recycle as much of the batteries as it can at end of life (GM notes it has recycled 100% of batteries returned under warranty so far). The Ohio facility, which we were told would be the size of 30 football fields, would have a 30-GWh capacity when fully up and running, with room to expand. GM figures it will need 250 million cells a year to produce its goal of 1 million EVs per year.

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