Engineering Battery Packs for the ‘Underserved’ OEMs

Veteran battery innovator and entrepreneur Subash Dhar.

Few battery experts in the mobility industry can match the engineer/entrepreneur spirit of Subash Dhar. In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Dhar is co-inventor of over 45 patents and patent applications in the field of advanced batteries and fuel cell technologies. He led the team that developed and commercialized the nickel-metal hydride technology used in the Toyota Prius and has served in leadership positions at XALT Energy, Ener-1, EnerDel, and Ovonic.

Dhar, a chemical engineer, recently founded a new company, American Battery Solutions, Inc., focused on module and pack engineering, assembly, and battery-systems integration. He’s aiming for EV customers in the transportation, industrial-, and commercial-vehicle sectors who are seeking expertise at low and medium volumes. With $50 million in capital backing from NY-based KCK Group, Dhar purchased foundational assets from Bosch’s North American battery-systems business, including a testing lab, a 172,000 square-foot plant in Ohio, and the lease on a 40,000 square-foot plant complex in Lake Orion, Michigan.

Dhar spoke with Automotive Engineering editor Lindsay Brooke.

Makers of electric airport tugs, delivery vans, or perhaps mail trucks would engage with your company to help them design, engineer, manufacture and integrate battery packs for their EVs, correct?

Exactly. I have an engineering team and probably the second-best high-voltage battery test facility in the Midwest, after GM’s. And outside of LG, I have the largest battery-assembly plant in the Midwest. I’m ready to offer that service to the smaller OEMs who wouldn’t expect to get such service from Samsung, LG, and other big battery makers who are geared to volumes of 200,000 to 400,000 vehicles per year. I want to support the middle-volume customer who’s making vans or airport shuttles. I can do that. We have hard assets, no debt, and we’re based in the U.S.

What is ABS’s production-volume threshold? Could you handle the new US Postal Service delivery vehicle contract of up to 200,000 units?

That would be our sweet spot. That’s exactly what I want to do. If I say 5,000 buses, that’s a huge number in the bus industry.

The EV market outlook is fairly bleak for the short term. Bosch pulled out of EV cell manufacture and is focused on 48V systems. So why is this a good time to start your new company?

My view is slightly different. In the last seven-to-eight years, lithium-ion technology, performance and manufacturing processes have improved by at least a factor of three. A while back GM announced it was buying cells from LG for $140/kWh, versus maybe $400 kWh in 2011. So, lithium battery costs have come down to a point where they are beginning to look economically viable in a traditional commerce stream. To where even the traditional lead-acid battery users, such as forklift trucks, are now seriously thinking there may be a [lithium] value here.

I don’t want to spend time in cell chemistry. That space is now occupied by those with enormously deep pockets and very broad knowledge of battery chemistry and materials science.

I want to focus on where I can add value: in buying cells and turning them into engineered modules, packs and systems for the users. The ‘underserved’ EV markets need expertise and knowledge and some capital to do that.

Will ABS have some input into pack design?

We have three kinds of potential customers. The first says, ‘Here’s my vehicle and here’s the space I’ve designed for the battery.’ And we’ll design the pack as a complete system to fit that space.

The second type of customer makes commercial vehicles, trucks and buses, and has a lot of room to package the battery. For that customer we’ll create standard modules to assemble into a pack.

And the third customer will have designed its own pack but needs someone to manufacture it. So, in some applications we will have significant engineering input into the pack designing the complete pack, while others we will simply manufacture it for them.

We’re chemistry agnostic and will do whatever makes economic and business sense for the customer.