Chicago company makes batteries cool again

AllCell battery material
Part of the battery pack creation process involves placing the lithium-ion batteries into the molded Phase Change Composite. Each portion of AllCell's warehouse plays a different role in the assembly process.

By Kaitlin Schuler

A battery production line and warehouse lives in a small building on Chicago’s Southwest Side. It features a main production floor with individual work stations dedicated to creating each product, with storage for shipments and a laboratory where new design ideas and compositions are tested and created. Workers in each area are focused intently on their part of the process, looking up only briefly to see the stranger in their workspace.

This is where AllCell Technologies LLC produces, packages and ships its novel battery cell cooling products.

AllCell received early funding from Skokie-based Heartland Angels Inc. and Townsend Capital LLC, an energy-focused company, but now makes steady profits from its customer base. Revenues have quintupled from $900,000 in 2012 to $4.7 million in 2014. AllCell’s numbers for 2015 have not yet been finalized, but Sales Director Scott  Novack predicted continued increase.

“We’re growing our revenue, our orders and our customer base each year,” Novack said, “as more and more customers are expecting quality lithium battery packs and are willing to pay a premium to get the battery life and safety we focus on.”

When the U.S. military approached the Illinois Institute of Technology for help designing batteries to withstand extreme temperatures, professors Said Al-Hallaj and J. Robert Selman took the lead and sparked the beginning of AllCell in 2001. Now, the company boasts 45 employees compared with the original six.

AllCell employees work to construct battery packs out of the Phase Change Composite  specifically designed by the company. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

“There were cooling vests that soldiers were wearing out in the desert,” Novack said, “but the lithium batteries were getting too hot, resulting in safety and range issues because of the heat.”

The professors and a small team of graduate students worked with the Department of Defense’s Future Force Warrior Program to design “small, lightweight batteries that could withstand high discharge rates in extremely hot weather,” according to AllCell’s website. Al-Hallaj’s Ph.D. research in lithium-ion batteries helped design AllCell’s technology and move the company forward.

In order to deal with problem of these cooling vests overheating, and subsequently killing the batteries, the AllCell team came up with its “secret sauce:” a mix of wax and graphite that surrounds each individual battery, capping its peak temperature and dispersing excess heat throughout the mixture. AllCell calls it the Phase Change Composite.

“The cycle life [of the battery] tends to be 50-70 percent higher because we’re regulating a lower temperature,” Novack said. “We strongly believe in thermal management, and that’s what our product achieves.”

AllCell’s team came up with the company’s Phase Change Composite or “secret sauce,” a mixture of wax and graphite that surrounds each individual battery to keep the entire battery pack cool enough to last and function as intended. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

AllCell also produces custom products for certain companies that need a very specific battery pack that they cannot get from a bigger company. Matra, a French company that dealt with cars, bicycles and aeronautics, and is now a subsidiary of Lagardère Group, worked with AllCell to design a lightweight, removable battery pack that would fit Matra’s specific electric scooter design.

“Since you have to get certification for every new design, some of our competitors don’t have time or flexibility to do custom orders,” Novack explained. Each battery pack must receive shipping certification from the United Nations and International Air Transport Association, along with other certifications depending on the design of the battery pack and the product for which it is made.

The U.S. military has been AllCell’s customer since 2008, when Al-Hallaj stepped down from his chemical engineering professorship at IIT to become AllCell’s full-time CEO and chairman. Novack said they also have robotics, drones, electric bike and energy storage customers. Other customers include companies like Chicago Electric, GenZe by Mahindra and Riide Inc.

finished packs
The Chicago company has a number of customers, both for its own battery pack designs and for custom designs. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

One of its most recent projects includes deploying as many as 3,000 solar-powered electric charging stations in Jordan over the next decade. Upon completion, each station will be able to charge 10,000 vehicles a day.

Al-Hallaj, a dual citizen of Jordan and the United States, entered into an agreement with Jordan’s capital city Amman. In 2015, the Kingdom of Jordan’s Council of Ministers exempted hybrid and electric car batteries from sales tax in an effort to encourage combating climate change. An earlier decision from the Council also exempted electric vehicles from customs duties and sales tax.

One of AllCell’s customers, Chicago Electric Bicycles, stressed the importance of its battery supplier’s focus on quality.

“AllCell lithium battery packs have the advantage of significantly higher quality,” according to the Chicago Electric Bicycles website. “The battery packs are handmade and tested for quality by American engineers at AllCell…and are half the weight of heavier LiFePO4 battery packs coming from Asia.”

Jacques Bonneville, Matra’s president and CEO at the time of its partnership with AllCell, had similar praise for the Chicago company.

“A key ingredient to our success is our ability to find cutting-edge partners who bring both high-performance technology and exceptional engineering capabilities to the table,” Bonneville said in an online note. “AllCell is the perfect example of the type of business partner we need, and our work with them over the past several years has provided tremendous value to Matra, our products, and our customers.”

Completed battery packs, both custom and bulk orders, sit on a shelf awaiting shipment. Part of AllCell’s strength comes from its ability as a small company to devote focus to custom designs for its customers. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

AllCell’s current focus is on its newest line of product, yet to be named, being released in March. This line improves upon the “Naked” product, which is a standard battery line that the company produces. The new product adds a custom container to hold the battery pack, for those customers who don’t have a container already in their product for the “Naked” pack.

“When you don’t carefully select a battery supplier, you get the Hoverboards situation,” Novack explained. “Picture a battery pack that weighs five pounds. There will be 40-50 individual cells and you want them to behave in the same way. The graphite, as a conductive material, does that and prevents overheating.”

Going forward, AllCell will add to its standard offerings with “a product that is a drop-in replacement for lead-acid and AGM batteries.” These would go in forklifts or golf carts, for example, which currently use lead acid batteries. According to Novack, lead- acid is inefficient, heavy and hard to maneuver.

“Lithium has a more expensive upfront cost,” he explained, “but the life of the product makes sense in terms of return on investment.”

Photo at top: Part of the battery pack creation process involves placing the lithium-ion batteries into the molded Phase Change Composite. Each portion of AllCell’s warehouse plays a different role in the assembly process. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)