INTERFACE Q+A: Building a Better Battery Pack
The battle to achieve better electric vehicle range and energy efficiency starts inside of the battery pack. Senior Manager of Battery Systems, Phil Weicker, is leading our charge.
The battery pack is the engineering keystone of an electric vehicle (EV), and its design has rapidly evolved across the industry in recent years. Despite a number of breakthroughs, unresolved issues such as unimpressive travel range, stilted vehicle performance, and inefficient packaging are still widespread obstacles.
Phil Weicker, our Senior Manager of Battery Systems, is leading the charge to combat these concerns. During his wide-ranging 15 years in the field, he has published influential literature on battery systems and both designed and built the world’s fastest hot tub. We sat down with him to discuss his approach to – and zealous passion for – battery design.
When you first started working on electric vehicles back in the late 1990s, did it seem a promising industry?
Absolutely not – back then, it was an utter pipe dream! People told me I was crazy, and that EVs would never work. “Electric car performance was too poor, the costs were too high, the reliability isn’t there, etc.” New developments in materials science and chemistry – the bread and butter of battery technology – are typically far, far slower than those in the digital space. To most people, it seemed like something that was impossibly far-off.
What attracted you to pursue EV battery design in the first place?
It was probably while I was working on my bachelor’s degree at McMaster University. It was the middle of the “dot-com boom,” and everybody was rushing to make new web services. It seemed really exciting…but it also seemed like no one was doing anything of greater societal benefit than trying to find their own way to sell pet food online.
I wanted to do something more tangible…of a direct benefit to the planet. The rapid degradation of the environment has always troubled me – and I’ve had to reconcile that with a life-time obsession with cars. The call for a responsible change in the automobile industry was undeniable. Working on electric vehicles just felt right.
A battery system requires more than a sizeable energy reservoir – it needs to charge and redirect current swiftly and safely.
Why did EVs take so long to become a realistic option for the automotive industry?
There’s a multitude of reasons, but a particularly inhibiting one is that, as a carmaker, you really have to commit yourself to developing a purpose-built electric vehicle…from the very first design stage.
Many OEMs today are trying to share both an electric and gasoline portfolio; they often try to awkwardly retrofit EV systems into these older, gas-powered car designs. EVs are fundamentally different beasts, so our vehicle architecture was consciously engineered with these differences in mind.
Why is it so difficult to adapt a combustion-based car design into an electric one?
The volume needed to house a battery pack can require almost 10x the amount of storage space needed for an equivalent trip’s worth of gasoline. Reconfigured gas cars can really struggle to package these sizeable energy storage systems.
Trying to electrify combustion-based cars can lead to an entirely different distribution of mass that ultimately limits the size and efficiency of their battery packs. Sometimes, they have to be bizarrely shaped or imposingly built into the trunk space – it’s really suboptimal.
Designing with the battery pack in mind from the beginning makes for a much more efficient and effective battery system – ultimately resulting in a more accommodating and better-driving vehicle.
What makes a better battery pack?
It’s a constant balancing act between size, weight, and durability. Obviously, a more substantial battery pack can store more energy, overall. However, the larger and heavier you build it, the more weight a vehicle has to carry – and the less efficient its energy usage will be. The true pursuit here is “energy density,” or how much electricity can be stored in every inch and ounce of a battery pack.
What variables make the pursuit of “energy density” so difficult?
There are a lot of challenges…one overlooked aspect is just how much of a battery pack isn’t actually used for energy storage – it’s a shockingly low ratio.
Protecting the battery, shepherding large electrical currents, sealing it from foreign interference, and maintaining its temperature all require additional components that bloat the mass of the battery pack. When a battery pack is inefficiently designed – like in a retrofitted gas vehicle – this issue only gets worse.
We’ve taken special care to reduce the material overhead of these support parts and integrate them as efficiently as possible to create the most energy dense battery package we can.
The battery team is working alongside the body structures and thermal teams to ensure the battery pack can be properly cooled, heated, and safeguarded – no matter the driving environment.
What is your highest priority: safety, range, or performance?
Safety is priority number one at FF, which is why we designed our multiple-string battery structure to immediately isolate and protect any module that displays even the slightest operative concern. Protocols like these are critical. After all, there are only really three things that house both fuel and oxidizers in the same container: bombs, rockets, and batteries.
You have to be painstakingly careful. The battery pack cannot be exposed to excessive mechanical shock, puncturing, or crushing. It has to withstand all anticipated – and unanticipated – types of vehicle loads. Its temperature has to be stabilized at all times. It cannot be overcharged or over-discharged. It has to be water-resistant and even repel dust interference.
When harnessing so much potential energy – whether it be in the form of gasoline, hydrogen, or electricity – there’s always risk. It’s a matter of controlling that energy with a rock-solid system and establishing exhaustive redundancies.
Is driving range a priority?
Range is a close second. So far, travel range has remained relatively low for the vast majority of electric vehicles. Carmakers argue that logically, the average driver commutes little more than 70 miles a day…so they don’t see a point in pursuing anything more ambitious. However, our lives – and the way we move through them – are one of the least logical things we do. There are constant curve balls, sudden invitations, and blindsiding emergencies. We have to design our vehicles around that; not the detached on-paper statistics representing our drives to work, but the erratic and unpredictable journeys we undertake every day.
Are there any standout materials unique to our battery pack?
Our battery cells will be of phenomenal quality – we actually just signed a deal with LG Chem as our supplier. This partnership puts FF in great company, as they’re one of the leaders in the battery industry, providing cells to the best EVs on the market today.
LG Chem responded to our challenging requirements with ambitious excitement and incredible capability. Manufacturing battery cells at the volume we require at the level of quality we need is something very few companies can do, of which LG is considered one of the best.
“I’ve always been deeply committed to EVs – even when the industry barely had ground to stand on. Climate change and recent socioeconomic factors have only strengthened my resolve. Though, admittedly, a little personal stubbornness plays into it, too.”
What is unique about working at Faraday Future in comparison to other carmakers?
Other OEMs who make electric vehicles – with the exception of a few – are usually satisfied with something that’s merely “good enough.” They want to provide enough value in a vehicle to justify the purchase price, and that’s about it. At FF, we’re really trying to make the best vehicle. No asterisks: the best vehicle.
We’re pursuing an astounding single-charge driving range, best-in-class safety features, and stunning performance in terms of both speed and acceleration. Our high standards have necessitated a meticulously refined battery system – every millimeter, every gram counts.
What advice do you have for those interested in joining our battery team?
First off – simply apply! This team is so central to the future of this company that it’s making for a career-defining experience where I’m able to innovate on a daily basis.
Secondly, since battery engineering is such a multidisciplinary endeavor – involving electrical, mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes – I’d make sure that you have a sound knowledge of the fundamentals in each area to deepen your understanding of how these systems work, as a larger whole. All of these elements have to play nice together. When they do, we can really push the boundaries of what’s possible.
If you are interested in pursuing a career on the FF battery team, we encourage you to apply for available positions on our careers page.