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Indy Power drops electric-car focus for more lucrative control boxes

March 30, 2009
By 2007, the technology for electric cars had evolved such that banker Steve Tolen had formed a company to build and sell one using off-the-shelf parts.

Or so he thought. He couldn't find a power control system that could handle the mix of different battery types he wanted for his electric car. Without that mix, the car would be underpowered or prohibitively expensive.

"There wasn't a power control system that would do what I wanted," said the founder of Carmel-based Symphony Bank.

But what became a dead end for his upstart Symphony Motors turned out to be a fortuitous fork in the road, as Tolen and his board concluded there was more money to be made in making the power control box itself.

Not only would the power control box have applications for vehicles, it could find a market in industrial and military applications. So Symphony Motors recently became Indy Power Systems, maker of the "Multi-Flex" box.

Think of it as the brains behind any electric power system that draws on various sources of electricity. An electric vehicle maker could use two different types of batteries—such as old-fashioned but cheap lead-acid batteries alongside better-performing but expensive lithium-ion units.

Or say a manufacturer wants to add alternative sources of electricity besides what comes off the grid.

The Multi-Flex could be programmed to tap the power source that's cheapest at any given moment. During peak pricing periods, the Multi-Flex could blend in solar and wind-generated electricity. It could also tap banks of on-site batteries.

Such control devices exist in bits and pieces now, but many must be heavily customized rather than being ready to roll with mere software programming.

"We're blazing a trail in energy management. We were doing this before it got hot. Nobody has cared to do this particular piece before," said Tolen, 55.

"We blend electrons. We're agnostic to any energy source."

Indy Power Systems is starting to find believers in its technology.

It has a letter of intent to produce its control device for Elkhart-based Godfrey Marine, which is looking at building an electric pontoon boat powered by both lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries.

It's had talks with Fort Wayne-based LC3 Inc., which makes "neighborhood electric vehicles" used by consumers and law enforcement agencies. Tolen also has been working with Union City-based Productive Concepts, which converts vehicles to run on hybrid electric and other alternative power systems.

The Multi-Flex box also appears to have valuable applications for Indianapolis-based Earth-Solar Technologies. The company builds photovoltaic power systems and plans to marry them with other technologies, such as wind, for deployment in communities around the world not served by an electric grid.

"The Multi-Flex switch is extremely valuable in this concept," said Keni Washington, managing partner of Earth-Solar.

Tolen's power control system company adds to Indiana's growing ranks of alternative energy companies, which also includes such firms as battery makers Altairnano, in Anderson, and EnerDel, on East 86th Street at Hague Road. Tolen sees the region shaping up as a Silicon Valley of advanced energy.

"Indiana could be the 'Intel inside' in this industry," he said.

Indy Power Systems has among its brain trust some of the top industry insiders in transportation energy and energy management systems. Board member Bill Wylam, while at GM's former Delco Remy division, developed the propulsion system for the automaker's EV1 electric car.

Also on board is Bob Galyen, another Delco Remy veteran who was lead designer of the battery pack for the EV1's prototype predecessor, the Impact.

Galyen has also written much of the electric vehicle terminology adopted by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Two others were engineers from the former Thomson Consumer Electronics. Quentin Kramer also worked on prototype motor controllers for Greenville-based Lynx Motion Technology. Andrew Hintz developed software at Thomson and was a contractor to Lockheed Skunk Works, where he was involved in customizing a flight simulator.

"We have our own little Skunk Works here," said Tolen, of his five-person team tucked away so deep into a Noblesville industrial park that it could qualify as a site for the federal witness protection program.

Behind a door secured from the lobby is a laboratory with an unlikely centerpiece—a golf cart.

It's not just any golf cart. Next to its familiar, chunky lead-acid batteries is a dictionary-sized lithium-ion battery--—the newest technology for batteries. They're considerably lighter and can accept large amounts of power much more quickly than their predecessors.

The trouble with lithium-ion batteries is that they cost $1,000 to $2,000 a kilowatt hour, while good old lead-acid comes in at around $200 a kilowatt hour.

There's a case to be made for using both. Because the new batteries can absorb large amounts of electricity quickly, braking energy can be captured and fed into the lithium ion batteries to keep them charged. That would be managed by the Multi-Flex.

In a vehicle powered solely by lead-acid batteries, only some of the braking energy can be channeled back into those batteries, with the rest dissipated in the form of heat.

The Multi-Flex device even can allow the old-style batteries to charge the higher-voltage lithium-ion version—a real head scratcher and a secret enshrouded under Indy Power Systems' provisional patent. Tolen's team demonstrates the process, while a digital readout of the batteries confirms the charging progress.

"If we told you how it worked, we'd have to kill you," Tolen said.

The point is that "nobody's ever blended batteries in this fashion before," said Kramer.

"If we'd have had this technology, they'd have never crushed the EV1," Galyen said of GM's discontinuation of the program in 2003.

Even within the lithium ion genre, there are three principal chemistry types, which could be optimized by the Multi-Flex, figures Tolen's team. As battery types evolve over the years, the Multi-Flex can handle the blending, they say, with a few software tweaks.

Full-scale commercial production of Indy Power's control units likely won't begin until next year. In the meantime, the company is looking at selling units for military applications and has had discussions with a company in Europe, Tolen said.

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