In another article, I briefly discussed Volkswagen’s plans to build a battery production facility and another automotive factory in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that Volkswagen only wants to build things to sell in the States. It also wants to take full advantage of battery expertise and talent pools in the US to develop future products. One way VW is doing this is with a Battery Engineering Lab in Chattanooga, Tennessee, near its current production facility there.
“When we began making investments in electrification, it was because we saw a future for our industry and the North American region in which Volkswagen could take a leadership position,” said Scott Keogh, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. “The Battery Engineering Lab helps make that vision a reality today, accelerating us decades into the future with advanced battery engineering to support our expanding EV push in North America.”
This new Battery Engineering Lab isn’t the only one. Volkswagen already has one in Germany, and it also has two in China. The company says these are “strategically placed,” which is very credible considering the availability of materials like rare earths in China, as well as the importance of that large market.
Engineers at the US laboratory will initially focus on battery designs and research for the group’s MEB platform, which is more than a traditional automotive platform. MEB includes motors, batteries, and electronics that can be adapted to a variety of vehicles of different sizes with different bodies. And we’re not just talking about cars. There’s even an MEB-based boat in production. It’s that flexible and adaptable.
But the MEB platform isn’t the only electric platform Volkswagen works with, and it is certainly going to work with more platforms and technologies in the future. That’s what makes a network of engineering laboratories so important. As future platforms need work, having a broad variety of global expertise allows the company to be more nimble when designing new products in every market.
Staying Afloat In A Competitive Field
“We are applying cutting-edge technologies to make sure that our EV batteries and ultimately our electric vehicles for American consumers are safe and strong,” said Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, EVP and Chief Engineering Officer, Volkswagen of America. “With our new Battery Engineering Lab as the new center for battery know-how, we can react quickly to the fast-paced EV market by applying data to our local engineering and assembly.”
It’s important to keep in mind that battery technology is a rapidly changing field. Right now, the relatively heavy and low energy density battery cells (compared to say, gasoline or diesel) means that electric vehicles have to be built a certain way to give the best handling and safety characteristics. Everybody is doing what Tesla did, and they’re building “skateboards” with a body that fits on top. This keeps all of that weight low in the vehicle.
As technology changes and improves, the best way to build a battery pack or even a whole electric vehicle will certainly change. Denser future batteries could potentially be placed more like a traditional gas tank at some point, or only live under a rear seat, allowing for greater design flexibility. Or, future developments we can’t think of right now could change the whole playing field and lead to radical changes we can’t anticipate.
But, somebody has to anticipate those changes. If you’re Volkswagen, you want somebody working at Volkswagen to anticipate beneficial changes before the competition does. That’s why it’s so vital for the company to have these battery laboratories on every continent (with the possible exception of Antarctica). If you miss out on the best people because you’re not hiring where the next battery genius wants to live, somebody else might scoop them up first and beat you.
Volkswagen’s Cool (& Hot, Dusty) Testing Tools
Volkswagen is using some very cool equipment at the lab, too. One of these cool tools is the “electrical Multi-Axial Shaker Table” (or eMAST). You don’t want battery cells meant for a car to not handle the punishment of riding around under a car. The machine vibrates the hell out of battery cells for a week, giving the punishment a real EV battery cell would go through in a whole year. EVs need to last for a decade or more, so the company needed a way to simulate a year’s worth of abuse fast.
Another cool piece of kit the lab has is a drive-in climate chamber. Temperatures can be set as low as -94° F to as high as 266° F (-70° to 130° Celsius). This allows the team of engineers and researchers to test new designs in a variety of conditions that future vehicles will have to drive in all over the planet. Plus, they can go beyond the worst to make sure the vehicle isn’t on the verge of failure in real-world conditions.
They also have thermal shock chambers to see if sudden temperature changes will break welds, super fine “Arizona” dust blowers to see if they can get dust inside the battery packs (something they obviously want to avoid), and even water tanks to simulate driving through flooded roads to make sure water leaks don’t short out battery packs (another obvious thing to avoid).
Avoiding Energy Waste
One other cool thing going on at the battery testing lab is avoidance of wasting electricity. An important part of testing batteries is charging and discharging them under punishing conditions that the testing tools can put them in. But, the company doesn’t want to just charge up the batteries and waste the electricity. So, they charge the cells and packs up, and then use the energy in the packs to run the building and all of the tools inside. If the packs give off too much energy for the building to use, it goes to nearby buildings or the local grid itself.
This doesn’t eliminate waste (conversion losses eat up some of the juice), but it does get rid of most of the waste that would happen if they just put the energy into resistors or something.
All in all, this sounds like a really cool facility, but more importantly, it’s a facility that will keep future Volkswagen vehicles from spending time on the side of the road or taking a premature trip to the junk yard. Nobody wants that!
Images by Volkswagen.
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