WARREN, Mich—General Motors' Global Battery Systems Lab is an outwardly nondescript precinct within the company's square-mile technical center in Warren, tucked into the Estes Engineering Center. But the lab is squarely on the front lines of GM's electric-car revolution.
Even after entering the Walmart-size facility, which has been expanded several times to 100,000 square feet over a decade of existence, its purpose isn't immediately apparent. A casual observer might think the rows of huge metal boxes could be baking Twinkies or mixing pharmaceuticals.
Instead, inside these stout cabinets, extreme energies are clashing, and atomic-level violence is escalating as GM tests the capabilities and safety of battery cells and packs for its all-electric vehicles and hybrids, and those of its competitors.
The lab has three new 600 kilowatt battery cyclers, for instance, and soon will have 16 more—at a cost of more than a half-million dollars each, including infrastructure—to conduct tests on batteries. With the rest of the lab battery cyclers, they will use more juice at times than it takes to power all the households in Warren, a Detroit suburb of more than 135,000 people.
"We're trying to wear out the batteries, which are going to have to take hammering on the accelerator, or maybe hauling a load up Pikes Peak," said Douglas Drauch, the lab's lead engineer.
Other cabinets are environmental chambers that mimic climate and weather extremes. "We can set things up for deserts, rain forests or Nome, Alaska," Drauch said. "We can set temperatures for as low as minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which you actually find only in some town in Siberia."
And in one room, a giant, $2 million "shaker" simulates how rough-and-tumble journeys on various surfaces will affect battery systems over time. An $8.5-million shaker soon will be installed, meant to handle the larger battery packs in future EVs.
GM said it has the largest battery-testing lab of any automaker globally. Nearly all such testing now can be done under this single roof, reducing cost and development time.
Durability and safety
The lab's crucial overall goal is to ensure not only performance but also durability and safety of GM's battery systems, because the company is promising that its battery systems will last for the life of its new EVs and hybrids.
The auto maker said it invested $28 million in the lab last year for new test chambers and advanced equipment to "help us accelerate our next-generation battery architecture."
The lab takes the results of mathematical simulations and compares them with physical testing of battery cells, packs and systems for performance in conditions such as extreme vibration, wild temperature ranges, human abuse, weird driving situations—and accidents.
"Basically, the lab is there to confirm the models produced by simulation," said Tim Grewe, GM's head of global electrification and battery systems. "It's impossible to test every situation under every scenario the way that people will use these cars."