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Exclusive interview with Frank Obrist, CEO, OBRIST Powertrain Inc.

31 January 2013

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Obrist is an Austrian company specialised in mechanical, thermodynamical and electrical engineering. The company has recently developed a lithium-ion battery with innovative thermal management and BMS, offering today a low-cost solution for electrified vehicles. took the opportunity to talk to Frank Obrist, CEO of OBRIST Powertrain Inc. to find out more on this battery. What chemistry is used in the battery?

Frank Obrist: We are currently using cylindric 18650 cells being a lithium-ion product and have the possibility to design cells for EVs, PHEVs or HEVs with different chemistries based on the needs of the client. What is the energy density of the battery?

Frank Obrist: The battery has an energy density of 160Wh/kg. This is ideal for PHEVs, our main focus at the moment. By using a combination of a small motor and a small battery in the applications of our programme for series hybrid vehicles, we are able to use a relatively small battery. What is the charge/discharge rate of this battery?

Frank Obrist: The battery doesn’t have to be fully charged and discharged each time. We allow the charge to oscillate in the area of 20-80% regarding the State of Charge, which is very favorable to the battery. We use this advantage to increase the total calendar and cycle lifetime of the cells and the battery as a whole. What are the anode and cathode made of?

Frank Obrist: We currently have five different cell manufacturers, including Panasonic, Samsung and A123, who, of course, have different anode and cathode materials because they use different chemistries.

It is tricky to give a single answer to this question as it depends on what you want to do with the battery. To get high density to reach large distances, you might prefer Panasonic cells, because they are predetermined for this. If you are looking for extremely high performance, then A123 cells are designed for that. They can generate extremely high discharge currents.

What is important to us is the variability that 18650 based cells bring. They have also been used to a large extent, in the past and currently, for many different applications, such as laptops and power tools, which means they are already produced in large quantities with a very high quality, making the individual product price correspondingly low.

In comparison, all other technological solutions being debated within the automotive industry are, due to the lack of production numbers, considered niche applications and are therefore quite expensive. This is the reason we view the 18650 technology as a very reasonable basis for guaranteeing low costs for the entire battery, not only in the near future, but already today. Do you already have data regarding lifetime (number of cycles)?

Frank Obrist: We are currently conducting intensive research to precisely determine this. Since the total number of cycles depends on how much strain is put on the cell, the preferences for a serial hybrid, like the one we develop through our hyper hybrid concept, are fairly obvious.

For BEVs this is different, as there is always the necessity to fully load the battery. You drive throughout the day and arrive back at home with a correspondingly low battery charge, or you charge and discharge periodically throughout the day. That strongly affects the cell and its chemistry when compared to a serial hybrid, in which the motor range extender is harmonized with the battery so that there is the option of driving in a way that spares the chemistry and doesn’t produce such stress situations.

We use this advantage to significantly increase the number of cycles. The biggest challenge for us is to figure out how to have the smallest possible battery without compromising the vehicle.

Throughout its life, a vehicle must convert many megawatts. Figuring out how to do this with the smallest possible batteryis a huge challenge for us. What is the thermal management used?

Frank Obrist: We have a patented system that uses water-glycol as a transfer medium. The system stands out because it is ultra-compact, yet still steadily cools the entire cell bloc. Therefore, through very steady thermo management, the temperature inside the battery is managed under all conditions whether hot or cold; parked or driving in high load conditions. Extremely important for the user is a small temperature spread inside the battery. Can you tell us about Obrist's battery management solution ?

Frank Obrist: We use a patented battery management system which distinguishes itself in that practically no cables are needed for its functioning. Other than the connection with the 18650 cell, the battery is special because it was conceptualised for mass production, in terms of the battery management system, as well as the cooling previously discussed, and the new holding system, and the fixation system of the entire cell block, which allows one to complete the entire fixation in a matter of seconds and at extremely low overall costs.

In total, these solutions enable us to offer competitive prices in a range under 300€/kWh, not first in 2020, but already now. This means that the costs for a 10kWh battery lie at less than €3,000. Surely this is the most remarkable aspect of our battery. Is the battery commercially available?

Frank Obrist: It is currently in the development stages, but we already have automobile producers who are interested in this patented solution because they see the efficiency in reasonable implementation costs. For the first application, we are discussing production of up to 20,000 components per year. In this respect, this particular battery is not currently in mass production but in the developmental stages for serial manufacturing. I believe you had a meeting with a German OEM earlier in January 2013. How did they react when you showed them the battery?

Frank Obrist: One OEM we met is very active in the development of its own cells and batteries. They even have their own company, founded specifically for this. The types of solutions we have shown in our batteries are an ideal fit for this first class manufacturer. Now, we are intensively contemplating to what extent we will work together in implementing these technologies there, because these are large series productions that bear a huge savings potential. Will we be able to see your battery at AABC 2013?

Frank Obrist: Yes. We intend to present our battery to the public, for the first time, in Pasadena at AABC 2013 (4-8 February) and hope to establish the corresponding contacts there as well. We are known for our expertise in the field of air-conditioning, in particular thermal management that we used in various vehicles now driving on the streets.

We had the opportunity to work on the mass implementation of series plug-in hybrid vehicles. However, until now, we have not publically presented our activities in regards to batteries and total hybrid systems. This we would like to do with the presentation of our battery in Pasadena. What are the next steps for Obrist?

Frank Obrist: We now have the exciting task of building a vehicle, encompassing the entire technology, including electrification of the battery in the system that we designed, for a customer in Asia. In doing this, we will produce the proof of concept within the first half of the year. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Frank Obrist: On the path towards the year 2020, many people ask themselves: What technologies will appear? Which ones will push through? Will it be the gasoline engine? Will the downsizing of the diesel engine continue?

What we see quite clearly in our own development, is the electrification of vehicles. A series hybrid has a lot of potential. This potential stems from the necessity of driving emissions-free in urban centres and cities, while not encountering the problem that one can’t drive long distances. For the up-coming requirements of supplying urban centres with emissions-free vehicles, series hybrids will be the solution.

We prefer series hybrid technology because it is ideal when one needs to drive long distance. This technology fulfils the demands of 2020. We have done extensive simulations which allow us to see clearly that when you try to contemplate from both sides - how small can the engine be, how small can the battery be, how small can the electric motorbe – eventually the values will find themselves at an intersection where the lowest costs, greatest driving pleasure, the most minimal environmental impact and the lowest production costs all meet. We believe it is our task to make this visible and we will be doing this throughout the year. The topic of the battery falls within this framework. It is the only solution, which is why we are implementing it and exhibiting it as an individual component at the AABC for the first time.


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