University of Texas Wants to Work With Tesla's 'Gigafactory'

With battery technology evolving, University of Texas professors suggest Tesla CEO Elon Musk take a second look at his plans to build a new factory with Panasonic.

by Laylan Copelin, McClatchy News Service / May 12, 2014 0
Tesla CEO Elon Musk Flickr/pestoverde

The father of the battery technology that powers Tesla’s cars has some advice before electric car manufacturer Elon Musk builds a $5 billion battery factory with Panasonic.

“I would think that by the time they build the factory, there will be a new battery technology,” said John B. Goodenough, a professor at University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering. “I assume they are gambling that the technology can be adapted.”

Goodenough, 91, is widely hailed for his pioneering work with the lithium-ion battery.

Musk is planning a 10-million-square-foot factory that will begin production of lithium-ion batteries by 2017 and hit full production by 2020.

In a recent interview, Goodenough stressed that he is not privy to Musk’s business plan, but said that building a rechargeable commuter car is “an incredible intermediate plan.”

Tesla officials declined to comment.

Musk is addressing the 250- to 300-mile range of his cars’ batteries by creating a network of “supercharging” stations along major highways. He also is trying to cut the battery’s cost by at least 30 percent.

Goodenough said new battery technologies could increase the range and cut the costs by substituting sodium for lithium, for example, and by finding a replacement for the expensive cobalt in the battery.

Goodenough’s colleague, Arumugam “Ram” Manthiram, agrees that battery technology is changing.

“Down the road, they can’t use this battery strategy,” he said. “They have to be adaptable.”

The Cockrell School of Engineering hopes to be a reason Tesla might locate to Central Texas.

“I’d love to bring Tesla to Texas,” Manthiram said.

He acknowledged that other states have the advantages of being closer to Tesla’s car assembly plant or to sources of lithium, but he argued that proximity to a research university is important.

“You can transplant lithium easier than knowledge,” he said.

Manthiram said a partnership with Tesla would provide jobs for UT students, help win federal grants and provide training for Tesla’s engineers.

“All these innovations will occur at the university, not in the industry,” he said. “They can take courses and work in our labs.”

UT has often been a draw in attracting business and industry, particularly in science and technology.

Sam Jaffe, a battery expert with Navigant Research in Boulder, Colo., said he doubts a research university is high on Musk’s list.

Taxes, land costs, wages and incentives are all economic factors in Tesla’s selection process, which includes Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California and Texas.

Jaffe said he has the “utmost respect” for Goodenough’s work but added, “The kind of work done at universities is usually far removed from commercialization.”

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas