Dow Kokam is not a high-profile name in the industry, and it doesn't have any car company customers yet. But if it builds higher-capacity batteries than the competition, automakers will beat a path to its doors in Michigan. It may turn out that, as people get used to electric cars, they won't really need that kind of range, but it's what people are used to from internal combustion, and any less will produce at least short-term "range anxiety."
Dow Kokam breaks ground later this month on a $322 million Midland, Mich., factory supported by a $161 million Department of Energy grant. The plant has a targeted capacity of 600 million watt hours, enough to supply 30,000 cars with battery packs. Now it just needs customers.
Dow Kokam's CEO, Ravi Shanker (no, not the sitar player; this one's a 20-year Dow veteran) said in an interview that the company's value proposition is based on long-range batteries. "Our challenge is providing the right balance of energy, power, longevity and safety," he said. "Integrating a pack like that into a vehicle for robust performance presents complex technical challenges."
The EV industry is already working on very big battery packs, even though the average pack in the cars coming on the market this year is in the 25- to 30-kilowatt-hour range. Tesla Motors, for instance, estimates that it could need an 85- to 95-kilowatt-hour pack for the Model S (which will offer a pack with 300-mile range as an optional extra).
Tesla's chief technical officer, J.B. Straubel, told me, "It would be the biggest pack on the market, and we're designing and building it ourselves." He added, "Saying it can't be done is like saying there's never been a gas tank that big. It's within technical reality."
The EcoCar Challenge, supported by General Motors and the Department of Energy, has 16 college teams competing in green vehicle conversions of Saturn Vue SUVs. At the second-year heat in Arizona recently, the University of Ontario showed off its all-electric solution, with a Dow Kokam 80-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Team leader Mike Maduro told me that it has (at least on paper) a 240-mile range, more than double that of the Nissan Leaf. And the Saturn Vue is no lightweight platform.
Shanker said that Dow Kokam may not yet have OEM partners, but it's talking to a number of them. To demonstrate its capabilities, it has installed packs in a number of vehicles, including minivans, trucks and a Lotus Elise with Telsa Roadster-like performance. It also bought the electric car subsidiary of the French-based Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassault, which makes high-performance batteries and energy management systems.
According to Shanker, cars like the Elise present a packaging problem because they weren't designed as battery vehicles â€" an issue that will probably go away in a couple of years as more unique battery car platforms are built. By producing its flat and stackable lithium-ion polymer batteries in 10-kilowatt-hour modules, Dow Kokam aims to fit its packs into the space normally taken up by the gas tank and transmission.
Today, Dow Kokam could fit eight of its modular packs into a small sedan (yielding 80-kilowatt-hours) but it might take up some trunk space. "You want to squeeze in as much power and energy as possible, but you also don't want to be left with only enough storage space for a set of golf clubs," Shanker said.
Dow Kokam also hopes to squeeze more range out of its battery packs by allowing deeper discharge than other companies. Most EV batteries will never be more than 80 percent depleted, but Shanker says "that's like having only half a gas tank. Our technology is aimed at having more addressable energy per charge."
If deeper discharge means the difference between an EV cruising down the highway and one stranded by the side of the road, Dow Kokam probably has a value proposition there.