Tesla Engineer Takes Battery Innovator Award, Talks Manufacturing Efficiencies, Recycling

By Allison Proffitt 

March 22, 2023 | Drew Baglino of Tesla accepted the Shep Wolsky Battery Innovator of the Year Award yesterday at the International Battery Seminar in Orlando, Fla. Shep Wolsky founded the International Battery Seminar in 1983 and was a tireless champion of battery innovation.  

Before more than 2,000 conference attendees, Baglino sat down for a fireside chat with Shirley Meng, Chief Scientist, Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science at Argonne National Laboratory. Meng warned him, as she took the stage, that the questions would be hard.   

Baglino has worked at Tesla for nearly 20 years, growing up with the company. He took on the role of Senior Vice President, Powertrain and Energy Engineering in October 2019. His work has been essential in Tesla’s shift to dry electrode coating, an innovation in the electrode manufacturing step that delivers savings in capital investment, labor, utilities, the footprint of the factories, and more.  

“Going from wet to dry reduces all of those costs by a factor of three,” Baglino said. “From a footprint perspective, it’s an order of magnitude smaller, requires one-quarter of the labor, one-quarter of the utilities, and half of the equipment costs.”  

These costs, Baglino emphasized, are not just reflected in a cheaper battery cell. There are savings in human time to build the factory as well as to build the electrode. “When we’re trying to build as many batteries as quickly as possible, putting less human time up front means we can accelerate this ramp of gigawatt hours per year, every year,” Baglino said.  

Achieving 240 tWh 

And Tesla is going to need that scale. Earlier in March, at an Investor Day in Austin, Elon Musk introduced Tesla’s third “Master Plan”, or strategic vision. He outlined a global focus for the company and predicted that the world would need 240 tWh (tera-watt hours) of energy storage in stationary and automotive batteries. He estimated that would cost about $10 trillion in new technologies, but assured the investors that it would be worth it.  

Meng pushed Baglino on how the Tesla team arrived at that specific number and the roadmap for getting there. (“I told you this was going to be hard,” she quipped.)  

A Tesla whitepaper is forthcoming, Baglino said, which will detail the methodology behind this prediction, but he explained that the team considered the sustainable energy pathways for five divisions of the energy sector. “In some areas, the technology is very mature, like electric heating and home heat pumps, but in other areas it’s still new—or newer—like how do we decarbonize high temperature industrial processes?” he said. The team considered all the power needs as electrical energy demands—time of day and season-dependent—and built a least-cost grid that included both storage and generation to fill the hourly demand in each of the five sectors.  

The result was a calculated 240 tWh of energy storage needed, but Baglino emphasized that there are levers that could impact that total. For instance, when will electric vehicles charge—at times of peak energy use or when there is a renewable energy surplus? The estimate also did not take into account autonomous vehicles, which could decrease the number of vehicles on the road and maximize their use.  

Finally, Tesla didn’t factor in long-duration storage, a variable that Weng used when making her own calculation. (She arrived at a need of 400 tWh. Today during his plenary address, Jeff Dahn, Dalhousie University, also calculated a 400 tWh need.) Baglino said that Tesla didn’t include long-duration storage in their estimate because that technology hasn’t been commercialized yet, instead relying more on renewable energy. That’s a fairly flat economic optimization, he argued. “There are lots of ways to end up in a sustainable energy economy. It could be lots of long-duration storage and less renewables. It could be what we put down, which is lots of renewables and less long-duration storage.” 

Either way, we have a long way to go. Meng noted that we currently produce less than 2 tWh of storage per year. “To arrive at 240 tWh, it sees mission impossible!” she said.  

Baglino crafted a much rosier picture. To get to 240 tWh—with about a 20 year lifespan on the storage, give or take—that’s about 20 tWh per year, he estimated, rounding up. If we are producing 2 tWh per year now, that’s an order of magnitude increase. “In the scheme of things, that doesn’t actually sound like a lot. It’s not two orders of magnitude or three orders of magnitude,” he said. “From here, it seems doable.” 

But achieving this will require some sea change in investment thinking, he admitted. He pointed to earlier days when essential battery materials—nickel, lithium, graphite, and more—were sometimes  considered more valuable for other industries. “The companies that are in those spaces, they saw batteries as kind of a distraction, now it’s the primary focus,” he said. That same shift in priority is needed now. “The investments are not insane,” he said. “From the demand side, from the supply side, it’s just helping the market, helping the banks and the people loaning money understand that 20 tWh is really needed and those investments are going to pay back, so we can accelerate this last small hole that occurs.” 

Recycling’s Role 

But an advantage to a battery-based energy economy is recycling, Baglino said. “Unlike the fossils fuel industry, you can’t easily pull that carbon dioxide out of the air. It’s not economically feasible to make fuel again out of the air,” he said. Batteries, though, can be recycled.  

Tesla has its own battery recycling facility in Reno, Baglino said, where the company gathers all of its North America end-of-life batteries and recycles them back into cathode materials. “Ultimately the battery at the end of the day is an upgraded ore for the front end of the battery manufacturing process compared to the ores that are out there,” he said, citing recovery rates of 1% for nickel, 10% for manganese, and up to 40% for iron (“One of the reasons LFP is so promising!”) from their ores.   

Tesla’s goal with battery recycling is to harvest usable metals from end-of-life batteries with the least amount of energy input and air emissions of any kind, he explained. He described the recycling process as, “just crush it up, shred it up, and through not a lot of additional processing, extract the lithium out of it and go right back into the cathode process stream.” Baglino reports great success with this approach, recovering over 95% of the initial lithium.  

“Additionally on top of that, there are ways that you can handle a recycled material like that that are better—much better—than the inputs to the precursor manufacturing process of today in cathode that are pretty exciting that I think will become more common in precursor itself because they are lower energy processes with less waste.”