Inside Nissan’s top-secret powerhouse

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CAR giant Nissan has thrown open the doors of its Sunderland battery plant for the first time.

With the firm having committed to the electric vehicle (EV) sector ahead of the competition and investing heavily in research and development, Nissan has been fiercely protective of its technology and access to the battery plant has been limited, even to the firm’s own staff.

The processes of manufacturing battery units in order of construction at the Nissan plant in Sunderland.

The processes of manufacturing battery units in order of construction at the Nissan plant in Sunderland.

But with the Sunderland-built Leaf well-established and now joined by the e-NV200 van launched earlier this year, the firm invited European motoring journalists – and a small number of local press, including the Echo – to visit the plant.

The Sunderland site produces batteries for both the Leaf and the e-NV200, so this year has seen a substantial upturn in production.

Nissan works across the fiscal year, rather than calendar, so it is a little too early to say exactly how sales are going, but European EV director Jean-Pierre is predicting good news.

He said: “It is difficult to say exactly where we are with Leaf, but I would say probably plus 25 per cent is the minimum increase we are going to have this year.

Dated: 06/11/14'The processes of manufacturing battery units in order of construction at the Nissan plant in Sunderland.   'FAO: Lucy Watts - Performance Comms.  #NorthNewsAndPictures/2daymedia

Dated: 06/11/14'The processes of manufacturing battery units in order of construction at the Nissan plant in Sunderland. 'FAO: Lucy Watts - Performance Comms. #NorthNewsAndPictures/2daymedia

“That is just for Leaf, rather than the van at the moment. We only launched it in September, so we don’t have any real information yet, but we have had very strong feedback for customers who are very interested in the van.”

News that Nissan would build the batteries to power a new generation of electric vehicles on Wearside actually emerged in July 2009 – before confirmation that the Sunderland plant would build the Leaf.

Work on the plant began just in 2011, with the company’s global chief operating officer Toshiyuki Shiga performing the ground-breaking ceremony and production commenced early last year.

Keeping it clean

Dated: 01/12/14'Journalists are given a tour of the battery plant at Nissan in Sunderland. This picture shows Kevin Clark from the Sunderland Echo.

Dated: 01/12/14'Journalists are given a tour of the battery plant at Nissan in Sunderland. This picture shows Kevin Clark from the Sunderland Echo.

ECHO business writer Kevin Clark (pictured above in his special suit) was one of the first journalists allowed into the battery plant this week.

“Most people do it mask, hood, overalls, boots, gloves,” says battery plant production manager Jim Wilkinson.

Preserving the environment inside the plant’s clean room area is so critical that we have to kit ourselves out from head to toe like surgeons before we are allowed inside.

First comes the mask, complete with a metal strip to shape it to the nose. Last are the latex gloves, snapped over the sleeves to encase the hands completely. Apart from our eyes, we are completely covered.

Even this is not enough, however, and entry to the clean room is through a decontamination area.

Although we are wearing specially-provided boots, sticky pads on the floor pull the last remnants of dust from the soles, while we pirouette gently in air streams that blow the slightest particle clean away.

Even then, it is not enough. We are obliged to watch the most delicate stage of the process on video, because allowing three extra people into the area would introduce too much moisture into the atmosphere.

Everything is geared up to keep contamination to a minimum. Jim shows us how the raw material for the batteries’ anodes and cathodes arrives on a huge roll, 2km-long when unwound. It is brought into the clean room from the main shop floor through a double-doored airlock, similar to those on a spaceship or submarine. Only one door is ever open at a time.

Excess moisture can affect the batteries’ interior chemistry, while solid contaminants can interfere with the workings.

“When you are building a cell, you have an anode and a cathode with a separator between them, which is very, very thin,” says Jim. “If you were to bring in contamination, potentially you would get a short circuit and the cell would not work.

“People are our biggest contaminants.”