What is it like to be a battery engineer?

Over the summer I returned to Magna ECar to work.  I did my PEY placement here 8 months ago, and was liked enough to come back without an interview.

I was placed on a different project as the battery team was moved down south to Michigan.  I was now part of the cell manufacturing team in R&D.

What did I do there?

My major duty was to develop a process to manufacture smaller cells.  Most of the equipment was ordered already, but I had to use it and create a process manual so somebody else could follow it.

From my Materials Science and Engineering undergraduate degree, I applied skills from the materials science, diffusion, powder processing , and ceramics classes.  Materials science class helped me understand the crystal structure of electrodes, how lithium ions can intercalatite between graphite layers, and how crystal structures in electrdoes can collapse and render a cell nonfunctional. Diffusion was useful when understanding how electrode wets everything in a cell. The powder processing class was helpful understanding about powder when we were using nanopowders to create electrode slurry.  Ceramics was also useful in understanding the electrode powders.  My undergraduate degree was most likely NOT needed to do this job, but it would be pretty hard to understand some of the inner workings of a battery cell without it.

This was the first time I worked in a clean room.  Canadian safety standards are quite high so you have to wear a lot of safety equipment.  I had to wear a dry suit, medical mask/respirator, safety glasses, and steel toe shoes.  The white dry suit seen in the picture below has thin wires, which look like stripes, running through the fabric; this is to ground the suit so we don’t short circuit any of the cells.

ready to make some crystal meth!

On this project, I was the only one actively acting on the project.  My supervisor would come in sometimes to show me how to operate machines, or give me an introduction to a manufacturing technique.  But for the most part I was the only one pushing the project forward.  I asked for a lot of help from the machine operators and technicians to help me complete this project.

What did I learn?

When I first started I was super excited to try and CAD something.  I ended up CADing a punch in solidworks.  Solidworks is a well known program, and it took me about 2 weeks to really get the hang of it.  I spent a lot of time designing that machine, but in retrospect I really didn’t need that detailed of a drawing to have it built.  I found out later that my pencil sketches are actually detailed enough to pass to someone else who would make it.  CADing is a great tool, but you probably only want to do it if your specifications are really specific, or you are going to go into high production of that part.

Another duty I was given was to try and come up with a mathematical model of a cell.  I was eager to try because I had previous experience with mathematically modelling a battery coolant system.  Last time I picked up MATLAB, but this time I tried using MAPLE.

MAPLE is good program if you want a lot of accuracy in your calculations.  Maple is a symbolic langage, which means it keeps all of the numbers in its symbolic form rather than making simplifications.  For example, in MATLAB (a numeric language), 10/3 would calculate to 3.33333333 at the end of the line of code, and all subsequent calculations would use the 3.33333333 value.  If the next line of code was to multiply by 3, then 3.33333333 * 3 = 9.99999999.  In MAPLE, 10/3 would calculate to 10/3 at the end of the line of code.  If the next line of code was to multiply by 3, then 10/3 * 3 = 10.

I read a lot of journals regarding different ways to mathematically model cell chemistry.  I understood the theory and equations, but putting them together to make a working model took a bit too long and I ended running out of time and needing to focus on working on the cell production.  I didn’t get to finish the model, but I gained valuable experience working with MAPLE, which I am supposed to use in my master’s thesis at Waterloo.

Final thoughts

All in all, working at Magna is great.  We are right next to head office, which gives us access to all of the biggest corporate parties, an awesome cafeteria, and great groundskeeping.  It will be hard to beat Magna’s corporate benefits and excellent education plan, although I’ve been told that they don’t pay as much as say… RIM or Hatch.  Working in R&D is fun because there aren’t as many rules, and you can try creative solutions to problems (think duct tape).  Many of my coworkers has been at Magna for over 5 years, with one even reaching 25 this year.  This was my best summer job yet.