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Lead ain't dead — not yet

I'm attending a conference outside Detroit, MI this week. It's The Battery Show and the Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Conference. Not surprising, there is an overwhelming number of presentations on batteries. The show floor is filled with people that provide materials for batteries, test equipment for batteries in engineering (not the dealerships), engineering services of all types, equipment for manufacturing batteries, some new concepts in packaging, high volume manufacturers and low-volume custom manufacturers.

I used to live in Milwaukee, WI where the quintessential Harley Davidson is located. (Okay, if you are a BMW, Honda or other aficionado, please don't get the hair up on the back of your neck.) Here's a picture of the guts of an electric motorcycle by Brammo. Those aren't lead acid batteries. While there is a lot of talk about fuel cells, solid state batteries, and lithium ion this and that, there are a number of people talking about the future growth of lead acid batteries.

Over the last decade, improvements in lead acid have included the AGM style (yes, it had lots of problems being birthed into the commercial vehicle industry. I have the bullet holes attesting to that fact.) Recently we've seen manufacturers improving the lead acid battery by adding more lead. (I guess that goes counter to the phrase, "Get the lead out!")

Fortunately, lead has some advantages. It's still a good cost bet. It is extremely recyclable globally. Production is not so heavily concentrated in China. Even in a lithium ion powered vehicle such as the Tesla cars, there is a lead acid battery buried for some applications. One researcher yesterday, from Avicenne Energy showed continued growth globally for lead acid battery chemistries.

While talking of recyclability, Johnson Controls mentioned lead is more highly recycled than anything else, including aluminum and paper. Johnson Controls also mentioned a new non-profit was recently formed and held its first meeting—Responsible Battery Coalition. They are focused on the issue of recycling of materials for lead acid batteries today, and materials in other chemistries in the future.

I wish I could say that the application of batteries will return to what we had 50 years ago with a single battery type and size that was forced to fit all applications. We cannot put the genie of electronics and electric accessories back in the bottle. We are going to see even more different chemistries, assemblies, shapes, and charging issues than ever before. Just as vocational trucks have different frames, axles, transmissions, engines, and control needs, they are going to have different battery needs. We are going to need some sort of automatic identification of battery type and equipment that automatically adapts to the specific charging voltages, currents, and power/time based algorithms needed for them.

There is a nasty looking storm cloud on the horizon, or across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Have you heard of REACH or ROHS? These internationally agreed regulations affect what materials are allowed to be used in a variety of places. The regulation may or may not be overREACHing with a recommendation to ban several lead based materials used in battery manufacture. This would appear to be a good idea. Remember, we banned lead in paint a long time ago in the USA. But banning for batteries could be a big problem. Here's an article on the possibility/likelihood of lead items being banned. 

The audience in one session was asked what they thought would be the most disruptive to batteries in the future. Assuming this is an intelligent audience that knows the future of batteries, the favorite answer was a new battery chemistry. It reminds me of the cartoon where something on the left turns into the wonderful thing on the right through a magical invention in the middle. Maybe, the answer is a more classic disruption. Historically, disruptions occur when something gets so complicated that people settle for something simpler and cheaper that does not meet all the needs stated by the incumbent customers driving development. Maybe that answer is a very old technology—Nickel Zinc?

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