GM builds new center to unlock cheaper, longer-range batteries

General Motors is building a new facility at its Warren, Michigan, campus aimed at unlocking breakthrough cell technology that will drive down the cost of batteries while improving their range.

The automaker said Tuesday that the initial phase of the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center, which will be about 300,000 square feet and located on the campus of GM’s Global Technical Center, is already under construction and is expected to be completed in mid-2022. The center is projected to expand at least three times its initial footprint as needed. GM did not reveal the cost of the build except to say “hundreds of millions” of dollars were being invested.

The facility is named after Bill Wallace, a GM director who led the team that designed the battery systems in the Chevrolet Volt 1, Volt 2, Malibu Hybrid and Bolt EV. Wallace, who died in 2018, also pioneered GM’s relationship with LG Chem R&D (now LG Energy Solution).

GM already has labs and an R&D facility working on the development of cheaper and more energy-dense batteries. This new center is supposed to tie all of GM’s various efforts together, including work done at its chemical and materials subsystems and battery systems labs.

GM aims to develop batteries with an energy density of up to 1,200 watt-hours per liter and slash costs by at least 60%. The goal is ambitious — some might say lofty. It’s also viewed as a critical step for GM if it wants to compete with every other automaker, all of which have announced plans to shift to an all- or mostly electric vehicle portfolio.

Right now, the foundation of GM’s shift to EVs is its Ultium platform and Ultium lithium-ion batteries. That new electric architecture and battery system, which were revealed in 2020, will support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs and performance vehicles.

GM has already announced plans to invest $5 billion into an Ultium cell battery manufacturing joint venture with LG Energy Solutions. The companies are establishing a battery cell assembly plant on a greenfield manufacturing site in the Lordstown area of Northeast Ohio that will create more than 1,100 new jobs and a factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The Ultium batteries will use less of the rare earth material cobalt and feature a single common cell design that can be configured more efficiently for higher energy density and a smaller space than current GM batteries, the company has said.

The Wallace center will be a key part of GM’s plan to build cells that will be the basis of more affordable EVs with longer range in the future, according to Doug Parks, GM executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain. These breakthroughs won’t show up in this coming generation of Ultium batteries.

Work at the Wallace Center is expected to speed up the development of new technologies, including lithium-metal, silicon and solid-state batteries. The center will also focus on improving production methods that can be used at battery cell manufacturing plants, including GM’s joint ventures with LG in Lordstown and Spring Hill and other undisclosed locations in the U.S., the company said.

Notably, the new facility will have the capacity to build 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. 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, the company said.