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Futile rear guard action?

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 11:37 -- Paul Crompton

The defending army is on the run. In a desperate attempt to help the troops escape, a rear guard is assembled, hoping beyond hope to delay the rapidly advancing attacking troops. They will run out of ammunition of course, or be overwhelmed.

This was the image that came to mind when I heard Alistair Davis at the Metals Bulletin 8th World congress last week, describing the latest ALABC programme to improve dynamic charge acceptance in lead-acid systems. It’s the weakest link, the achilles heel, the runt of the litter in arguments after you’ve bleated on about lead’s recyclability, low cost and “nice grey colour” of the ingots.

And when you’ve got a handful of researchers working on the problem and just a few millions to spend, the odds of success, when the enemy are throwing thousands of the best electrochemical minds at the problem are wafer thin (and that’s being over optimistic). Is this lead-acid’s Alamo, Rorke’s drift and Custer’s last stand? It looks like it.

Norbert Maleschitz can see the writing on the wall for lead-acid in automotive and we’ve been saying it for a lot longer. And as you can read in this week’s BEST Battery Briefing, the Chinese are already acting. Given their country’s propensity for wanting to smash the industries that  have brought both prosperity and pollution, the great Chinese lead-acid dynasties are moving into lithium-ion manufacture like it’s going out of fashion. If China is going to get electric vehicles off the ground big time, it needs to go this way.

Having said all that, there are one or two voices out there that still give lead a fighting chance. Dr Steve Clarke, of Aquametals pointed out the obvious. Lead-acid’s utilisation of active material has remained stagnant for decades while lithium’s has improved by leaps and bounds in 20 years. There’s a starting point. But it will need money and leadership, a little lacking in the current climate.