By Glen Martin | Mar 19, 2022
Battery Packs for EVs
EVs are on fire -- not literally, of course. It's just that demand and production of electric vehicles have finally dovetailed with the long-held expectation of exponential growth. Technologies have advanced, prices have declined, and people are clamoring for them. And not just for passenger cars: the market for electric commercial trucks and buses is expanding rapidly as well.
Central to the dramatic growth of the global EV fleet is the increased availability of powerful and compact rechargeable batteries. Production and deployment strategies vary. Some vehicle companies -- think Tesla -- favor vertical integration and fabricate their own battery packs. But most EV manufacturers rely on other companies to make batteries for them.
It's a challenging, competitive, capital-intensive arena -- and it's one in which Octillion Power Systems excels. Established in 2009, the Richmond, California-based company specializes in the design and production of lithium-ion battery packs for electric cars, trucks, and buses. To date, Octillion and its associated companies have delivered approximately 600,000 batteries, and the future looks, well, positively electric, particularly for Asian markets. The company maintains manufacturing plants in China and India through its associated entities to better service the burgeoning demand.
"We're the number three battery pack maker in China," says Paul Beach, the company's president. "The graph line there is straight up. China has gone all in on EVs. They have three million EV cars on the road and almost 450,000 electric buses. They've made a strategic decision to change their entire fleet to EVs, and India is right behind them."
Octillion's strong suit is its bespoke approach to battery production. As the EV market expands, many manufacturers require battery systems that are customized for the vehicles and makes they're producing. That means battery pack power, size, shape, and chemistry can vary significantly.
"Tesla has been successful by taking a single battery module and using it for the limited number of models it produces," Beach says. "But for other EV manufacturers, it's not one size fits all. General Motors, for example, has so many platforms -- so many different EV cars and trucks -- that one battery system can't work for them all. Batteries have to fit like a glove in EVs, and that requires a major investment in design and production. We've optimized our processes so we can customize and scale to production quickly and at low-cost. That's our secret sauce."
Octillion has also succeeded by "remaining agnostic" about cell production, says Beach. Though the company is wholly committed to lithium-ion batteries, cell designs and chemistries can vary widely, with performance dictated by multiple factors. In the arcane nomenclature of battery production, cells can be prismatic, cylindrical, or pouch in form, while chemistries might be lithium-ion phosphate, lithium-ion NMC, or NCA and lithium-titanate.
What it all boils down to, says Beach, is that Octillion Power Systems provides whatever the customer demands.
"We work closely with each client to determine the best cell chemistry and form for their applications and configure as needed," Beach says. "We design our own battery management system using a standard micro-controller chip that reliably integrates all functions."
As the transition toward a carbon-neutral economy proceeds, Octillion is looking to expand beyond EVs. But that's for the long term.
"We've dappled in home storage applications," says Beach. "Investment is high, it's taking time to mature, but it's slowly growing. Battery packs can be integrated with solar, of course, but they also have stand-alone value for emergency backup applications, such as blackouts due to high winds or wildfires."
While lithium ion is the standard platform for EV battery packs, there's been much hoopla over other cell chemistries such as sodium or magnesium. Driving the research is the fact that lithium hydroxide -- the basic feedstock for lithium-ion batteries -- is mined in relatively few places. Most of it, in fact, comes from an arid region in South America’s "Lithium Triangle," an area comprised of salt flats in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. Expanding cell production to other elements would likely reduce pressure on manufacturers and moderate product costs.
"The price of lithium shot up 600 percent last year," observes Beach. "But new sources for lithium salts are being developed, including in the U.S. We're extremely interested in new technologies, particularly sodium batteries. But I've read eulogies for lithium for a long time, and it's still the standard for the industry. I think lithium-ion batteries will be around for quite a while, and we have to plan accordingly."
Challenges: "Cell prices will remain a continuing challenge for the entire industry," says Beach. "The supply chain is completely choked at the cell level. At the same time, companies can't build capacity fast enough. I anticipate cell demand will remain higher than capacity for the next two to three years."
Opportunities: "We're going full scale on increasing market share, given the tremendous growth in China," says Beach. "We also think global markets are ready to embrace the EV transportation revolution. The U.S. for example, is just at that point where the commercial fleet is poised to transition. Electric systems are becoming very competitive for big trucks, especially for that last mile of delivery. We also think batteries are going to be a big part of the story for grid storage. So, we're going to cherry-pick our opportunities."
Needs: "We're actively building operations on two continents now, so we're in pretty good shape," Beach says. "We consciously grew our engineering talent as we've expanded. If you don't have application and service engineers on site, it's hard to grow that market. You can get by with centralized cell engineering, but you need people to explain and service the product in the places where you sell it. Shipping it to another country for service doesn't work well."