Alistair Davidson of the Consortium for Battery Innovation on Energy Storage

January 14, 2020 Alix Paultre

Energy storage has been an issue in the electronics industry, ever since the first untethered powered device was created. However, prior to the advent of the personal electronics revolution, most battery uses involved short-term application-specific use cases. Early batteries used the most basic chemical processes to store energy, complicating the issue. Once the pressure of mainstream consumer demand was focused on batteries, however, chemistries rapidly evolved, and are still evolving today.

The first major consumer product that exposed the issues of battery life and operational lifetimes were the first personal music devices. These music machines had energy storage issues at every level, from the “AA” pinky-sized batteries used in pocket-sized players to the much larger “D” cells used in great numbers in suitcase-sized portable stereo systems. These new use cases highlighted the need for better (and rechargeable) batteries.

Today, while there is still a lot of demand for better energy storage in the consumer spaces in portable electronics, the lion’s share of the pressure is now coming from the automotive and robotics verticals, where the margin for error when the power runs out is nonexistent. This demand for better batteries in electric vehicles, robotics, and industrial systems is driving a great deal of the development effort today

The Consortium for Battery Innovation
We reached out to Alistair Davidson, with the Consortium for Battery Innovation, to get a bit of oversight on the issue. Previously known as ALABC, the Consortium has been carrying out research into lead batteries for a quarter of a century. The group sees each of the various chemistries currently available in batteries are useful for various applications, based on applicability.

ECD: Welcome to the show. Do batteries still need a lot of innovation? 
Davidson: Thank you very much for having us first of all. That's a very interesting question. I think the answer to that is, yes, I think batteries are needed for a range of applications, and the current batteries, there's a lot of exciting batteries that currently used, but innovation is vital to ensure that batteries can meet the technical requirements, future technical requirements of end users. 

ECD: Well, there's a tremendous amount of focus being given to the battery right now. I'm one of the people who don't necessarily believe we need higher densities. I think advanced power electronics and materials can go a long way to address issues of range anxiety. I do believe we need safer and smarter batteries, and well, I'll take whatever high densities they can give us.  
Davidson: Yeah. Yes, I would agree with that. I think safety is another important topic. Here at the Consortium for Battery Innovation, we're focused very much on conducting innovation and research into improving lead batteries. Lead batteries have been around for a very long time, over a hundred years, and they're very well-known.  

But actually one of the things that people don't understand is there's been significant technical improvements in lead batteries over the last 10 or 20 years, and they're meeting a lot of the technical requirements that users need at the moment, but we think there's a huge potential for them to improve further.  

I think you mentioned energy storage, and I see that as a very exciting topic for batteries in the future. I think there's governments around the world who are setting very, very ambitious goals and targets for electrification and decarbonization, and they will not be able to meet those goals and targets without energy storage, and specifically batteries for energy storage.  

But I think batteries must adapt and improve through research and innovation to be able to meet those goals. I think that the demand for batteries in those applications are set to be so large that it cannot be met using one technology alone. Lithium-ion are great batteries and they have excellent capabilities. But I think that lead batteries are the only other technology that can meet those technical requirements on a mass market scale.  

So from our point of view, we're focusing all of our work on improving the performance of lead batteries. You mentioned energy density, and I agree, it's a key parameter, but there's other areas that are very important and we're focusing more on lifetime and cycle life, improving that in lead batteries. I think that will really open up our opportunities in energy storage. We're talking about improving cycle life in the region of up to 5,000 cycles.  

ECD: Well that's critical, especially if you're thinking about fast charging, because if you're short or fast charging, some battery technologies are actually hostile to the process. 
Davidson: Yes, absolutely. I think that's another focus that we're looking at. I think improving charging efficiency is something that is applicable across the board for all applications, and that's a key area for us to look on as well.  

ECD: Most notably directly applicable to the lead-acid space is the work they're doing with zinc batteries at City University in New York. They're working on the zinc acid batteries, and they're stirring the electrolyte to prevent the whiskers from forming. These could replace lead batteries in most applications.
Davidson: Currently lead batteries represent over 70% of the rechargeable battery market. So we really are that dominant technology at the moment. I think a lot of these other technologies have great opportunities to improve their performance, and I think that there are many exciting technologies. One of the things that we see is it just takes a long time for those batteries to come to market.  

And so, that's why we see investing in research into lead batteries provides a very exciting opportunity because there's a lot of potential to improve them, but also the speed at which we could implement those improved batteries into the market is much quicker. So that's one of the things that I think is so exciting about the potential for lead batteries. But as I say, I think we need all battery technologies in the future. 

There's going to be such a demand, whether we're talking about hybrid vehicles, start-stop vehicles, full electric vehicles, whether we're talking about all the different types of renewable energy storage in utility applications. There are so many battery technology, we just need to make sure that we select the battery that is best for which application. I think that's essential for the future.  

ECD: And that's quintessential engineering, right? Choosing the right solution for the application. 
Davidson: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Very much so.  

ECD: So now, what is the value add the consortium gives the industry? I mean, because it's one thing to say, "Hey, we need to do something." What is the consortium actually doing about it?  
Davidson: Through the Consortium for Battery Innovation, our major focus is on funding pre-competitive research. So that's research that all of our companies can go away and use. For example, we might undertake a study that shows how the use of carbon or other additives can improve the performance of partial state of charge, and each company can go away and then implement that in their battery technology. 

The benefit of our work is that we can leverage funding. So we have over 19 members globally. They all fund CBI, and using those fundings we undertake different research. So we have a much broader research program than one company would be able to implement individually. So I think there's a significant benefit for our members in that way. 

We also do a lot of other work, that sort of pre-competitive stage. We're getting more involved in utility and renewable energy storage, because we think there's significant opportunities for lead batteries in those applications. We do help companies. We bring companies together into demonstration projects.  

So for example, we recently launched, or we've been looking at a feasibility rather, of opportunities of using lead batteries as batteries in EV charging stations, where basically you would charge the battery from the grid when costs are low, you store the power, and then you release it when the demand is higher, which makes things more economic, so using a battery as a backup for EV charging stations provides that, so it helps make the infrastructure more economic. 

ECD: Well, in that whole thing about load shifting is critical because as you pointed out, it's an enabler for the green energy. That's the answer you give to people when they say, "What do you do when the sun stops shining and the wind starts blowing." You turn on the batteries. 
Davidson: Exactly. Absolutely. It's a great opportunity, and shows that it helps bring in those green opportunities. As you say, it helps implement electric vehicles, but it also does it in an economic way, and I think that's very exciting about that project. This is actually, we've undertaken this in Missouri where we haven't many of our members, Missouri is actually a hot spot for both lead battery manufacture and lead production and lead recycling. So it's one of the areas that we've been focusing on. 

ECD: Well, you know Alistair, you learn something new every day. Now I know that is a lead battery developmental hotspot in the USA, there you go.  
Davidson: Yeah. There's a university there called Missouri Science and Technology, that has an excellent department that's doing a lot of very exciting work on lead batteries.  

ECD: Oh. See, that's fascinating and that's excellent. We should actually go chase them down and see if we can get somebody from them to talk at some point. But now, Alastair, have there been any interesting anecdotal examples that you could give us some of the things that the organization is doing to move development forward?  
Davidson: So we run programs on a three year basis, and we've just launched a new program in 2019. And so, we undertook a technical roadmap where we were looking at opportunities for lead batteries, where our research should be focused and what our goals for research should be.  

I mentioned it already, that for utility and renewable energy storage, our highest priority is cycle life, and trying to achieve 5,000 cycles by 2022. For automotive, lead batteries are widely used in automotive. They're used in your conventional combustion engine to start the car and power the electronics and lights. They're also used to start-stop a micro hybrid, all the way up to electric vehicles where you use lead batteries as an auxiliary battery to power safety functionality. 

We've been looking at where the options are for lead batteries, and we believe in mild hybrids, micro mild hybrids particularly, that lead batches can improve their performance, a partial state of charge, particularly their dynamic charge acceptance, the ability of the battery to store energy, for example from regenerative braking, that there's significant opportunities for lead batteries in those areas.  

So for our research we're looking to improve the dynamic charging acceptance of lead batteries to two amps per ampere hour, sustainable over the battery life by 2022. So we've set those two high level goals. We have set other secondary goals, but that is our highest priority. Currently, we're wading through a huge number of proposals that have been submitted as a result of our RFP. 

We've got a number of very exciting proposals from well-renowned universities, research and testing institutes all over the world. And we're looking to launch our current research program later on this year. So it's a very exciting time. We've got some excellent ideas. I think new, novel ideas, looking at lead batteries in ways that haven't been studied before.  

I would mention one project actually that we've been working on in the last few years where some of our company have come together to work with Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, using synchrotron x-ray radiation to study lead batteries that are not being used currently, not previously been used to study lead batteries. Synchrotron radiation had been used to study lithium-ion batteries in the past, and I think that's really exciting. 

What that provides is the ability to understand what's happening in lead battery in real time, and in-situ, it's not been done before. I think something from my point of view actually made me realize or understand that there's a lot that's not understood about a battery that's been around for a long time and really highlights the untapped potential of lead batteries. So that is a particularly exciting study that we're working with at the moment.  

ECD: Well and it is exciting Alistair, especially when you consider that what is considered a mature legacy technology has the potential to have a new life, because of advances in processing, topology, and configuration.  
Davidson: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's something that some people need educating about is that lead batteries have changed significantly from the past and they are a technology of the future, and they have huge opportunities to help, as I say, governments around the world to meet some of these very ambitious goals and targets for electrification and decarbonization.  

ECD: I agree, Alistair. Thank you so much for coming out and talking about this. As you point out, you're one of the harbingers of this new information, so I'm glad that we had you here on the show. 
Davidson: I would, if I have time to mention one other thing. 

ECD: For sure. 
Davidson: One of the things that people don't know about lead batteries are they're actually the most recycled consumer product around. We often hear about recycling, the importance of recycling batteries, well lead batteries are currently over 99% of their batteries are collected and recycled in Europe and North America. They really are the perfect example of circular economy in action, and I think that's something that perhaps people don't widely understand. 

ECD: Well, that's actually a fascinating point because you think about how metals are highly recycled, but you don't think about how critical the whole aspect of lead is, then also proper recycling is key because it's a toxic material. 
Davidson: Of course. But when lead batteries are recycled properly, there's nothing that can match it. It's actually a reasonably simple technology where all the batteries basically have the same components, so it's very easy to recycle them economically and efficiently.  

ECD: Before I let you go though, Alistair, do you have any final tips or points, or anything for our audience? 
Davidson: I think I would just like to highlight there's a huge exciting future for lead batteries. There's a commitment from our industry. There's a commitment from governments around the world to help improve lead battery performance, and I think certainly for our industry, it's a very exciting time. 

ECD: Thank you again so much,I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. 
Davidson: Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.  

 
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