Tesla‘s Battery Evolution: From 18650 to 4680 Cells and Beyond

When you think about what sets Tesla apart as a leading electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer, battery technology likely comes to mind. Delivering superlative range and acceleration relies on continuous innovation across thousands of lithium-ion cells powering every car off the line. Between in-house engineering and external partnerships, Tesla has leveraged four key battery types over its 19-year history and counting:

Battery TypeDimensionsCapacityModels Used
1865018mm x 65mm3,000-3,500 mAhRoadster, Model S, Model X
217021mm x 70mm4,800+ mAhModel 3, Model Y
468046mm x 80mm~5x capacity of 2170Future Model Y
PrismaticVariousLower kWh/costStandard Range 3/Y

But how exactly did each battery enable Tesla models to achieve leading range, acceleration and efficiency over time? And what role will new cell form factors play powering the next generation of vehicles built around the globe? Let‘s explore the past, present and future of Tesla batteries.

The Invention of the Early 18650 Cell

The iconic cylindrical 18650 lithium-ion cell traces its origins back to the early 1990‘s, invented by Dr. John Goodenough (no relation to the Harry Potter villain). Sony commercialized the format for camcorders and laptops shortly after, touting far higher energy density than alternatives.

As Tesla prepared to launch its first production EV sports car in 2008, sourcing these 18650 commodity cells made sense. No one could match the manufacturing scale or cost efficiency of the ubiquitous laptop battery. Engineers lined-up 11,000 cells wired together to power the 2,500 lb curb weight Roadster. This battery architecture unlocked 244 miles of range and 0-60 acceleration under 4 seconds – blowing away similar fossil-fuel convertibles requiring tradeoffs between performance and efficiency.

The much larger and heavier Model S flagship sedan later expanded capacity 10x over to 85 kWh using a denser module and pack design, still underpinned by thousands of 18650 cells jointly manufactured with Panasonic. Revised chemistry pushed cell-level energy density higher as well. The 2012 Model S with its industry-leading 415 miles EPA range cemented Tesla’s reputation for battery prowess paired with screaming performance.

Early battery partnerships also extended to companies like ATL, who provided 18650 powerpacks in China-exported Model S/X vehicles with alternate LFP chemistries to lower costs. But cycling limitations inherent to LFP would spur Tesla’s next generation battery collaboration improving both performance and affordability…

Co-Developing the 2170 Cell

By 2014, Tesla saw demand outstripping their 18650 cell supply and manufacturing capabilities. With the upcoming Model ≡ (now known as Model 3) aiming for higher volumes at lower price points, Panasonic and Tesla began co-developing an entirely new battery under former CTO J.B. Straubel.

The result? A wider 21mm diameter "2170" format cell boasting a 20% density improvement over 18650 predecessors while streamlining connector mechanisms and module housings for simplified production. New nickel-rich NCA cathode chemistry pushed maximum cell charge potential over 4 Volts as well. Flowing thousands of these enlarged 2170 cells into Modules and Modules into Packs enabled Tesla to assemble higher capacity, more power dense structures running cooler with less interconnect mass.

When Model 3 deliveries began in 2018, its 2170-powered 75 kWh battery pack delivered 315 miles EPA range right out of the gate – rivaling far pricier luxury flagships. Software unlocked upgrades soon stretched this by another 40 miles, reaching the current 358 mile Long Range rating with efficiency exceeding 250 Wh/mi real-world. That translates to over 4 miles added for each kWh – a key metric where the 2170 battery and Tesla architecture demonstrate industry leadership. The Model Y Crossover SUV leverages the same module and pack technology to achieve competitive range and acceleration with its taller, boxier formfactor.

Gigafactory Nevada has greatly expanded 2170 cell manufacturing volumes over the years to support demand across Model 3 and Y product lines. Additionally, the Shanghai Gigafactory produces 2170-based powerpacks localized for China alongside LFP variants. Upcoming facilities in Austin and Berlin are expected to manufacture their own flavor of 2170 cells/packs optimized for regional vehicle output as well.

Despite these localized efforts however, Tesla expects their next-gen 4680 battery to ultimately supersede 2170 cells across the global manufacturing base…

Future 4680 Cells: Bigger and Tabless

In Battery Day 2020, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla‘s proprietary 4680 cell – the company‘s first wholly in-house designed li-ion battery integrating learnings from over a decade working with partners. These 46mm x 80mm scaled-up cells offer about 5X the capacity and 16% higher range of the 2170‘s thanks to Maxwell dry electrode tech eliminating binders/solvents, larger silicon anode content boosting density 35%+, and a revolutionary tabless design streamlining internal connections.

Specifically calling out new 4680 performance, Musk confirmed: "It has the potential to have the lowest cost per kWh, and with a lot of caveats, be under $100 per kWh." Considering analysis pegs current Tesla pack-level costs near $115/kWh, 4680 cells scaling toward Terawatt-hour volumes could accelerate the move to profitability on cheaper Standard Range models – and fund richer Autopilot/FSD capabilities at higher tiers.

The first 4680 Model Y deliveries are imminent from Gigafactory Texas, as line retooling adapts for the larger cell integrating structurally into pack architecture.esa expects Texas and Berlin to support full 4680-based production by early 2023 before migrating the tech across Nevada, Shanghai and future sites. The Cybertruck is also slated as an outlet for these cells at even higher capacity levels required to drive 500+ mile range targets.

So in summary – the 4680 battery stands primed to deliver step-change technical and cost improvements that should only solidify Tesla’s vertical integration and battery leadership in the booming EV market. But evolving LFP chemistry and prismatic cell partnerships highlight the range of technologies still powering Tesla’s roadmap…

CATL Prismatic Cells For Added Diversity

Alongside shifting 4680 output in Texas-built Model Y‘s, Tesla also signed a 2-year agreement with Chinese firm CATL to supply prismatic lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells for other Standard Range models. These LFP batteries ditch nickel/cobalt content entirely to enhance stability and safety – albeit with reduced energy density caps.

Sourcing LFP cells from the worlds largest EV battery manufacturer makes economic sense for Tesla’s cost-sensitive models, given CATL‘s scale driving $/kWh way under $100/kWh at the pack level. Their cobalt-free chemistry also avoids supply chain and capacity bottlenecks for those metals that analysts expect to strain over this decade. Even if cold temperature performance and longevity remain handicaps, intelligent BMS calibration can manage around the drawbacks for temperate regions.

We should see the initial LFP powered Model 3‘s and Y’s emerge from Gigafactory Shanghai later this year – adding wider chemistry diversity alongside 4680 lines ramping in Austin and beyond. While range and charging tradeoffs exist with these cheaper LFP cells, passing on some cost savings to improve profitability and standard range affordability will only accelerate Tesla‘s mission.

Key Takeaways: Range, Acceleration and Efficiency

Stepping back, when we evaluate all battery types powering Tesla vehicles new and old against critical performance criteria – which comes out on top? The 2170 cell integrated into Model 3 and Y architecture demonstrates measurable advantages today:

  • Industry Leading Range – 358 miles EPA rated for RWD Long Range Model 3 thanks to efficiency exceeding 250 Wh/mi or over 4 miles per kWh from its 75 kWh pack. Highest of any EV without the 200 kWh mega-pack compromise.
  • Quickest Acceleration – AWD Model 3 clocks 0-60 mph in under 3.1 seconds matching far pricier ICE supercars. Instant EV torque never gets old!
  • Peak Efficiency – At over 97% efficiency with an MPGe of 132, the Model Y stretch of 2170 tech leverages compact crossover practicality without performance tradeoffs.

While the Model S still holds bragging rights for longest EPA rated range (previously over 400 miles!), the fact you can purchase a 358 mile Model 3 for less than half the price demonstrates the 2170 battery‘s compelling combination of capacity, density and discharge properties to drive range/efficiency/acceleration in balance.

As Elon Musk fine tunes future 4680 and LFP equipped models to build on these strengths even further, Tesla continues pushing what lithium-ion battery technology can deliver in accordance with physics…and perhaps chemistry itself before long.

I‘m curious which battery details in Tesla‘s evolving technology story stood out most to you! Feel free to share any thoughts on what you expect or hope to see in their next generation of cells/packs powering models beyond the Model 3/Y. Appreciate you taking the time to read.

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