AutoblogGreen Q&A: Prabhakar Patil of Compact Power, Inc

The other day, Dr. Prabhakar Patil of Compact Power, Inc. was up in Vancouver, BC for the Auto FutureTech Summit. While AutoblogGreen wasn't able to attend the show, we did get a hold of Dr. Patil on the phone for about 15 minutes to talk about CPI's lithium ion batteries and get Dr. Patil's perspective on what the future holds for electric drive cars. As many readers probably know, CPI is one of the companies delivering batteries to GM for the Chevy Volt, so Dr. Patil is in the center of the lithium ion world. CPI is also working with other automakers (details are still secret, unfortunately).
You can listen to Dr. Patil using the audio widget below and we'll have there is a transcript of the discussion pasted after the jump later today now.

The video meant to be presented here is no longer available. Sorry for the inconvenience.

ABG: So I have with me Dr. Prabhakar Patil and he is the Chief Executive Officer of Compact Power Inc. Lots of exciting news coming from Compact Power in the recent months. Dr. Patil, you are currently in Vancouver British Columbia is that correct?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: Yes.

ABG: There is the 2008 Auto FutureTech Summit going on and today, I believe, you were leading a panel on "The Road to Lithium Batteries." That is certainly something that our readers are very interested in and very excited about, and can you give us a little rundown of how that panel went. What were some of the exciting things you have heard today?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: First of all, I was a participant in the panel. The moderator was Ann Marie Sastry of U of M [University of Michigan], and the panel discussion went very well. There is a lot of interest, as you can imagine, because I think the electrification of the vehicle - in which the plug-in hybrid is the latest phase - is catching a lot of people's interests and imagination. And within the role that lithium-ion batteries are playing and since this panel request more focus on the lithium-ion, there were a lot of interests and discussions and questions.

ABG: You are a very good person to have on a panel like this. You were working at Ford for a close to three decades, 27 years or so, and had a lot to do with the Ford Escape Hybrid. So you are certainly well-versed in the industry and in this particular type of technology because your company Compact Power Incorporated is focuse so much on lithium-ion batteries. There is a lot of different battery chemistries out there. From your point of view, you feel that lithium-ions are the right thing to be working on?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: Yes. For the next 15 to 20 years which as far out as anyone can project that the answer is very clear that it is going to be lithium-ion, for the same reason that it not dominating the consumer electronics markets today essentially displacing nickel metal hydride and fundamental reasons for that is what it offers in terms of utility for the costumers. You get maybe twice, a little more, talk time or computing time for the same weight of the battery. Or on the other hand, if you are happy with the amount of talk time, computing time, you can reduce the weight of the battery and it is exactly the same factors that play here, in terms of the amount of-the reduction in the weight and size of the battery for the same level of performance, which means it makes it easier to package in the vehicle or it can offer more capability to the costumer.

ABG: You are talking about size reduction but the cells that Compact Power is working on are what are called the "large format" li-ion cell, lithium-ion cells? Can you tell us a little bit about the CPI cells if you do not mind?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: That was part of the next part within the panel was that not all lithium-ion are created equal. In fact, the lithium-ion has to be optimized for a given application. A significant part of it is also related to safety because I know with what has happened with the recall of some the lap-top lithium-ion batteries and so forth that people are genuinely concerned about the safety, and since they are all called lithium-ion you tend to think, "what if the same thing happens." The point here being that the multiple levels they are trying to address and enhance the safety to a point where, based on the data we have seen, we feel very comfortable in putting these batteries in production vehicles.

I am coming back with the specific things on the cell, the cell format, the flat-rectangular package that for vehicle applications has maybe a footprint of something like anywhere from 6 by 8 inches to 8 by 10 inches, and, since the thickness is maybe about a quarter of an inch to a third of an inch thick, offers several advantages. First is it is a lot easier to manufacture. It has very few parts compared to a cylindrical cell and what that means is that you get much better yield and therefore the quality is better and the cost is lower.

In addition to that, this flat package is thermally more efficient because what happens if you try to make vehicle-size batteries in the cylindrical format, it that the electrodes can get about maybe 30-35 feet in length and you can imagine the difficultly, first of all, in winding something that long around a central spindle. But, in addition to that, you literally get over a hundred, maybe 120 layers of the electrode around that central spindle which means that the heat generated in the center has to make it's out to all of those layers.

So you get a big temperature difference between the center of the cell and outside, whereas in these flat packages, as you can imagine, the number of layers that is substantially reduced maybe 10 fold and so the temperature difference between the surface and the center of the cell is much better. It's lowered by at least a factor of 4 or 5, and what that means is its simplifies the cooling system in the car. All of this is a big deal because the temperature of the cell makes a big difference in its life and of course when we are designing these for a minimum of 10 to 15 years of life, these thermal characteristics become very important. So those are two major things favoring this flat-laminated package.

ABG: And there is one company in particular that has certainly shown an interest that we have know about is General Motors. CPI was one of the developers that delivered some samples for the Volt, possible batteries for the Chevy Volt. I think you have delivered four in total, is that right? Or is it higher by now?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: That's right.

ABG: What are some other things that you are hearing back from GM about the testing that they are doing and what they want to see in the future batteries that you deliver to them?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: In term of specifics of GM's feedback and reaction, I think it is might be better to get it from GM but what I can say is that those batteries, both the cells and the pack, are performing as we had simulated and projected them to be. Because between GM and ourselves we have agreed upon a path of what these packs would be capable of doing as they went to the bench-testing, laboratory testing and so forth.

So far, they are performing as projected which is good news. That is the reason for my statement of saying this is not slam dunk in terms of engineering challenges but at the same time everything that we have seen so far, we are working our way through and delivering the performance that was jointly agreed upon between GM and ourselves.

ABG: I want to ask you in a minute about the deal that you had with United States Advance Battery Consortium, but as far as working directly with any other auto makers, what is the status on those kind of deals or is CPI working mostly with GM at this point?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: No, we are working with other OEMs but I cannot really talk about the specifics because we leave that announcement of our discussion to the OEM. The only one that I can say is something about is in Korea. Hyundai will be coming out with a conventional hybrid next year, 2009, and that will actually use our lithium-ion batteries and it is something that, I think, they can probably give you a reference. I think that is something that is posted on our website?

Dick Pacini (who helped set up the interview): I think it is.

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: So that is the production program involvement for our lithium-ion batteries.

ABG: Okay. I did not mention this but for listeners who are unaware, one reason that a Korean company is working with your batteries is because Compact Power is a subsidiary of the Korean Company LG Chem, so...

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: That is it that is true. But the point being that I think it is more of a confidence in the technology for both the chemistry as well as the package and the safety capability that they went through, they meaning Hyundai, went to with evaluation like any OEM peer would in terms of looking at available technologies. They would not go with ours simply because it happens to be Korean.

ABG: Right.

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: More so with the capability of battery.

ABG: And at the beginning of 2008, of this year, CPI announced the deal with USABC that I mentioned and this was a deal to work for a little over the next two years on - let's see, it is called a High Power Manganese Spinel Cathode Chemistry Battery. You can tell the way my mouth stumbles over that, that I do not know too much about that type of battery technology. What can you tell me about that deal and the battery that you are working with for the United States Advance Battery Consortium?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: Well, I guess we have been working with USABC for several years and our chemistry is manganese-base which is also known as the spinel and that is for both conventional hybrid as well as for plug-ins. We try to maximize the use of manganese and the reason for that - and it is still lithium-ion - the chemistry gets differentiated and manganese is base-chemistry for what we have been developing. The reason for that is basically is that manganese is very abundant and it is very stable in cost. Some of the other chemistry, for example, the consumer electronic uses a lot of cobalt which is a price volatile material and, as you know, part of the difficulty with nickel metal hydride in the last couple of years has been in price volatility, and that is something, by design, we want to avoid metals and that was one of the reasons for working with manganese. It has another advantages in terms of good energy density. The short comings with the spinel that has been recognized for some time was this limited calendar life. But that is the development that we have been working on for several years, then now we have demonstrated to you at EDP that the recipe that we have is capable of achieving, for a conventional hybrid, more than 15 years of calendar life, which is what we were trying to do. Another variant of that chemistry is what we are developing for the plug-in hybrid. So we currently have set up two programs, one that is almost finished with USABC working on the recipe for the conventional hybrid, and the new one that just got started that will go on for the next 2 years or so. That specifically targets the plug in hybrid type of chemistry.

ABG: If I remember it, the range for that battery, the target range is about 10 miles on the battery power alone?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: That is right. All electric is 10 miles.

ABG: Okay. So these are a lot of great things coming from a little company or a little subsidiary here actually in Michigan in Troy. What can you tell me about Compact Power and how do your employees feel about being here in Michigan and some economic troubles that we are having here, but the potential for revitalizing a lot of the auto industry in a greener way?

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: Those are is a very good points because we specifically set up to focus on vehicle applications for lithium-ion battery and one of the reason that I joined the company was recognizing that there was good synergy from my work on the Escape at Ford and I knew what the battery technology needs to do and at the same time I saw the promise in this battery, the lithium-ion, but in particular this chemistry and cell configuration and so forth.

So it was the good synergy and I think we have actually progressed very well than when I started in November of 2005 we were five people, today, I think you count noses, somewhere between 50 and 55 and we probably will be doubling again within a years time. And that, as you indicated, is somewhat of an antidote with the job erosion that has been in the automotive sectors and Michigan has been typically hard hit. The thing that I have to say is that the State of Michigan people have been very supportive because they recognize that the potential for something like this to generate jobs, and our intent is to actually manufacture or assemble the battery packs locally so that for the North American vehicle manufacturers we look like a full capability one-stop shop for meeting their hybrid vehicle battery needs.

ABG: We will certainly be keeping an eye on that. We are very excited anytime there is some good battery news coming out. So many companies are working on so many different things. I wanted to thank Dr. Patil for speaking with AutoblogGreen today and hope that you do have a wonderful summit there in Vancouver and looking forward to hearing more from Compact Power in the near future.

Dr. Prabhakar Patil: Okay.

Share This Photo X