In long-distance race with Tesla, Porsche looks to new battery tech for an edge

June 21, 2021, 6:30 PM UTC

Porsche hopes an untested type of battery cell can help it gain ground against Tesla in the growing market for luxury electric vehicles.

Earlier this month, Tesla grabbed headlines the world over after unveiling the Model S Plaid, a sports sedan that offers performance similar to that of Porsche’s top-of-the-line Taycan Turbo S, but at a significantly lower price.

On Monday, the German sports-car maker announced it will invest somewhere close to €100 million ($119 million) to produce enough cells at its pilot plant to equip roughly 1,000 cars annually for initial testing.  

“You cannot purchase the technology that is at the heart of our high-performance sports cars. We develop it ourselves,” said Porsche development chief Michael Steiner in a statement. “That is why it is only logical for us to develop and build the key technology of the future—the battery cell—ourselves.”

Porsche said the cells would feature a chemistry that can significantly boost the amount of energy stored per unit of volume. Instead of graphite, it uses silicon for the anode, which, along with the cathode, is one of the cell’s two poles where lithium ions are continuously stored and released.

This metalloid gives the cell a low internal resistance, meaning it can recharge more quickly and recuperate brake energy more efficiently, all while withstanding higher temperatures.

By comparison, the cathode uses conventional nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) chemistry, but it will be a highly pure mixture sourced exclusively from German chemicals giant BASF.

Porsche engineers are not convinced, however, that the new silicon-anode chemistry will be able to eventually function at below-zero temperatures or achieve the same longevity, in terms of thousands of charging cycles, required for commercially sold cars. 

Before they ever find their way into a car delivered to a paying customer, Porsche first aims to put the silicon-anode cells through their paces in the most demanding of environments—motorsports.

The grueling confines of the racetrack remain a key proving ground for Porsche, where innovations are tested thoroughly before they end up in series production cars. 

Some of the inner workings found in the Taycan, such as its 800 volt electrical system, can be traced to the 919 Hybrid prototype that dominated the legendary 24-hour endurance race in Le Mans in the past decade.

Despite Tesla’s better efforts, the Taycan to this day holds the record for the fastest lap time of any battery-powered series production sports sedan on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. The famous 20.6-kilometer-long racetrack was once the site of Germany’s Formula 1 Grand Prix until it was deemed too dangerous in the 1970s.

The new 100-megawatt-hour production plant will most likely be located near Porsche’s development center in Weissach. It will be operated jointly by a company called Cellforce Group, in which the sports-car maker owns an 84% majority.

Germany and Porsche’s home state of Baden-Württemberg will support its plans to the tune of €60 million.

“This joint venture allows us to position ourselves at the forefront of global competition in developing the most powerful battery cell and make it the link between the unmistakable Porsche driving experience and sustainability,” said chief executive, Oliver Blume, calling it the “future of the sports car.” 

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