Jack Johnson puts a lot of emphasis on common sense, or what he calls ‘farmer ingenuity,’ when tasked with solving particularly difficult problems. Courtesy Volta Power Systems
Jack Johnson’s work has earned him the reputation of a problem-solver. The co-founder and director of operations for Holland-based Volta Power Systems takes his experience as an engineer to the market of lithium-ion energy.
Before founding Volta, Johnson started one of his most challenging engineering projects at Johnson Controls when the company moved to Holland in 1999, a process called “slush molding.” The process is used to create components for car interiors.
“They had a lot of problems with it, and I got assigned to it,” he said. “Within my first year there, I started enacting what I call ‘farmer ingenuity,’ (common sense) … and I helped them turn it around, and we made a $20-million project savings.”
Shortly after, Johnson had to solve a more serious problem after the Johnson Controls plant in Battle Creek exploded.
“I got a call from the vice president of Johnson Controls — I’m just in my second year on the job — and he says, ‘We’ve had an incident in Battle Creek at the plant, and I need your help,’” Johnson said.
Johnson believed the explosion was caused by a fire originating from an oil pump. The 500-degree oil used in the slush molding process vaporized and filled the molding room with gases, which ignited and blew out the entire room.
“This was probably the craziest job I ever did,” he said.
Johnson had to order a new heater, which was on a ship in transit to Honduras, hire a helicopter to take the heater off the ship, transport it to Miami, Florida, and fly it into Grand Rapids.
The process of acquiring a new heater took four days; Johnson said building a new one would have taken six months.
To add to the challenge, a tornado ripped through the area during the project and forced the reconstruction team into a shelter.
The process took almost 800 people to complete. Johnson said the company cleared every union shop in the state. The team rebuilt the entire plant, and it came back online in just seven days.
“I saved them a whole heck of a lot of money in projects over the years,” Johnson said.
In 2009, former President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a stimulus package aimed at preserving jobs and creating new ones in the wake of the 2008 recession.
“The (ARRA) was about trying to put a bunch of money into the industry to develop new technology,” Johnson said. “And a lot of that money went to green technology and advanced energy.”
Johnson Controls received $250 million in ARRA grant dollars to build an advanced energy facility in Holland: the Johnson Controls Battery Plant.
“It was a big deal,” Johnson said. “Obama came here twice.”
Johnson, who had gained a reputation as the “fix-it guy” from the Battle Creek plant, was tasked with leading the advanced manufacturing of lithium-ion technology.
The challenge for the battery plant was there was no model to run off. Johnson said this was the first large-format battery plant with an automotive focus.
“Traditionally, everything had been made for consumer electronics,” he explained. “Now all of a sudden, you’re asking for something to last like an engine.”
He also had one year to make it work.
Though the project was a success, Johnson Controls didn’t see a significant return. After coming online, the plant only had a few projects, and these projects didn’t fill the full volume of the plant.
“We did all this great work, had an amazing team building an amazing product, but it wasn’t selling,” Johnson said.
Johnson approached his leadership to propose selling to another market besides cars. The leadership gave him a budget with which he began to study the RV industry and how this new automotive technology could benefit RV campers.
Johnson proposed his ideas to Randy VanKlompenberg, owner of Panterra Luxury Coach, an RV deal in Holland, offering to provide the battery technology if VanKlompenberg would provide the vehicle.
“We took a million-dollar coach, put some of the most advanced technology that Johnson Controls had and turned this thing into an amazing vehicle,” Johnson said.
But Johnson Controls wasn’t impressed. Even after the positive feedback from consumers, the senior leadership didn’t see enough volume to convince them to keep pursuing the project.
“We understood, but there’s a better return. You don’t have the volume, but at least it’s something,” Johnson said.
VanKlompenberg, however, had a joint development agreement that said any intellectual property developed during the project belonged to him.
Deciding he wasn’t happy at Johnson Controls, Johnson decided he’d take a payout to leave the company in 2014. He then pulled together a team, along with VanKlompenberg, to start a company centered on providing advanced energy technology for the RV industry and other industries that normally couldn’t afford it.
“(Johnson) came to me with this wild, crazy idea,” VanKlompenberg said. “At first I thought he was crazy, but he was persistent, so we kept going.”
A little more than three years later, Volta Power Systems has a team of 12 people and recently hired another engineer.
Part of Volta’s work involves educating people on the science behind lithium-ion technology, a term Johnson said is misleading.
“The word ‘lithium-ion’ doesn’t describe the products very well,” he said. “It’s like you’re talking about fuel the whole time, but you never explain the difference between diesel and gasoline.”
Johnson explained there are seven different commercial chemistries that fall under the label of lithium-ion but are radically different and require different battery systems to accommodate them. If a battery is developed but doesn’t accommodate a certain chemistry, the system could fail.
He gave the example of A123 Systems, the Livonia-based developer of lithium iron phosphate batteries, which a few years ago was the subject of negative media attention after batteries that use similar chemistry caused hoverboards to spontaneously combust.
“Everybody was like, ‘Whoa!’ And people don’t understand it’s not necessarily the chemistry that fails. It’s the design,” Johnson said.
Lithium iron phosphate batteries are commonly used in RC toys without any trouble, but in the case of hoverboards, the battery was not designed to complement the chemistry involved.
“As we evolve in this new economy, people are going to have to learn the differences, just like they learned the differences between diesel cars, gasoline-driven cars, electric cars. … We spend a lot of time helping people understand it’s not as easy as you think,” Johnson said.
The technology Volta produces, by comparison, is nickel manganese cobalt, which is used for automotive batteries.
“You’re talking three times the energy density,” he said.
In the case of service vehicles, like fire trucks or ambulances, Volta implements “anti-idling” technology to amplify the electric power required to run equipment without burning excess fuel.
“A lot of vehicles’ jobs are just sitting there, not going anywhere, but they need power, so they keep the engines running,” Johnson said. “The crazy thing is one hour of idle time equals about 20 miles of drive time.”
Volta is also currently working on a project to produce advanced energy for Wyoming-based fire truck manufacturer, HME Inc.
Johnson said a company like HME might not have the finances to build a truck to run on advanced energy, but the technology Volta provides offers solutions based on the setup.
“Companies $50 million and down, we’re providing packages so they can participate in this new global advanced energy economy,” he said.