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Kristallnacht for lead-acid?

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 17:50 -- Anonymous

I’m fondly remembering the days when BCI’s convention was there for my amusement, or so it seemed— the ‘early bird’ attendee prize draw for $100 handed out by the amazing Ann Noll.

She did virtually all the organisation back stage, but now Smith Bucklin send seven helpers. The jog-a-thon (which I never attended) has slipped into history.  Dick Amistadi’s 5-year forecast on SLI (no change there then)… must have been a mild winter… The paper hand-outs (there’s now an App for that). And the far-flung locations for what was a conference based around a golf tournament. It was a ‘hoot’ and a peaceful world for lead… or so you thought… Battery Council International seemed almost an anachronistic event in an industry spoiled for choice in terms of events and trade shows.

Now it’s looking a little bit more serious. For the lead industry, it’s beginning to look like Kristallnacht—November 9, 1938, where, in Germany, almost 200 synagogues were destroyed, over 8,000 Jewish shops were looted, and tens of thousands of Jews were removed to concentration camps. Now some of you will say I’ve gone too far here. To them I say wake up and smell the coffee.

The point I’m making is that the writing was on the wall for Germany’s Jews for several years before Kristallnacht and the smart ones left, probably without their assets, but they got to keep their lives.

There’s a parallel here with the lead industry, the legislative and technology threats are existential now— and they’ve been there for a while— they’ve also been ignored.

Lithium is advancing on price and function, so much so it could replace lead. Legal bans will tip things over the edge, to— let’s be frank— destruction of the industry. And BCI’s speakers, like Ray Kubis were showing where that process is happening.

This year, we saw how America’s lead community are going to fight back— through social media, Facebook and the like (or should I say “likes”?) Making videos that rally the troops in your plants and telling the great unwashed that lead batteries are doing sterling service, (essential energy everyday?) backing up the internet and powering forklifts— is probably a wasted effort.

The great unwashed have no clue about how their smartphone works or what chemistry powers it. To the many, it’s almost magic— they’re nothing like the 11-year-old science prodigy who ‘wowed’ BCI attendees and whose grounding in chemistry could wipe the floor with some of your greatest and best trained.

To stop what Ray Kubis virtually called “the insanity of trying to outlaw lead”, you almost need “regime change”— certainly in Europe, where the misinformed are making catastrophic decisions that might echo around the globe.

You just have to hit and take out the few so-called decision makers with the best lobbying a $60 billion dollar industry can afford and can muster.

I fear the industry is running, like so many Bison, into REACH, the end of life vehicle directive and California’s own special measures. Don’t let Ray’s forecast come true. The world needs this industry more than some of you need the work and the jobs it creates.


Mars is a great market for pure EVs

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 14:35 -- Vic

All power to Elon Musk and SpaceX. What an incredible achievement to build the world’s most powerful rocket, make much of it reusable and have a sufficient sense of humour to put one of your other company’s product— a Tesla electric car, atop of it all and send it toward Mars! Tesla is losing a fortune, so what the hell?

This writer didn’t know if any of the Tesla team was at last week’s Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Mainz last week, but maybe Menahem Anderman had a word in his ear. “You’ve got about as much chance of selling fancy electric cars on Mars mate, as you have in the USA or even China for that matter.” So perhaps Musk took him literally at his word?

It’s still all about the battery and Anderman literally laughed out of court the major automotive OEM’s predictions about how many pure EVs they’ll sell by 2025— only seven years away. 20% market penetration?  “Balls” as we say in the UK. Anderman reckoned 5% or probably less. It’s a little different in the People’s Republic of China. If you want a car in Beijing, you have to have an electric. It’s a government order.

But for the rest of the world? Big lithium-ion will still be too damn expensive even that far down the road. No cheap ingredients… nickel cobalt.  Get that into your heads!

Draw your own conclusions; it’s stop start for the rest of us. And that means… yes, lead!

The lead people though were not present in large numbers at AABC— outnumbered 10:1 by the advanced chemistry people.

In their own cosy sessions the lead men concentrated on difficult technical issues but failed to be exuberant on the good things coming their way in years to come— as long as they can keep the damn legislators off their backs. Maybe that’s the problem… they are too old to party! But they need to… lead industry stocks have got to be a better bet than so many new alternative chemistries.

You can read more about what really mattered at AABC in my exclusive report in the Spring issue of BEST. Make sure you’ve subscribed.

A flaming embarrassment

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 11:59 -- gerry@bestmag.co.uk

Looking for ways to make lithium-ion batteries safer? Well, don’t go to a battery safety conference, because you won’t learn much! At least I didn’t when I went to Cambridge EnerTech’s battery safety event last week in Arlington.

There’s a lot of interesting science around in terms of working out what happens when you short circuit a lithium-ion battery on a very expensive high energy X-ray source (the images are fantastic) but how that helps you, the manufacturer, prevent whatever that “natural” causative agent might be for this to happen seems about as likely as predicting the next self-styled lunatic with enough money (and guns) to carry out a massacre in the USA. 

It can’t be done.

As the Donald said: “This is not a guns issue.” And as to battery fires and failures, perhaps they are not a lithium-ion issue. If we didn’t have so many portable devices and electric vehicles, this would not be an issue at all… Of course, you’d have to plug your not-so-smart phone into a wall socket each time you wanted to check your mail and we’d all be connected ‘wiredly’ to do so much that we now take for granted. Or fire granted?

And this brings me to my final topic for this excuse for conference spleen venting… battery stand-up comedy!

It’s a new comedy form that is being developed by Joseph Nowikowski, almost the last act on the two-day event. Nowikowski, a fire investigator, managed to achieve laughs from fire scenes— before and after. Radio-controlled cars bursting into flames, caught on camera (security) in ‘man caves' all over the Union, dog teeth marks on a punctured battery found under a burned out sofa (we kid you not), not to mention the litany of stories of exploding vaping devices (missing teeth thrown in for more good measure) and laptops left charging on beds. All down to lithium-ion.

Nowikowski was right on the money. Sure, the insurance companies will pay out on the fire because they allow for peoples’ stupidity… but if they can show a defective battery was to blame, they’ll be after you. Another investigator in the audience said they had 120 open files on fires, with lithium batteries ‘in the firing line’, so to speak.

Nowikowski didn’t quite say, “if you can charge it, don’t leave it unattended”, but if I had felt like misrepresenting him, I could have sold that story to the so-called British newspaper, The Sun.

Joe public has no idea about the number of fake phone chargers there are in circulation, nor can they tell if a product has a BMS capable of detecting overcharge or thermal runaway in its earliest phase. They have no knowledge of UL and Interek’s safety standards and they like to buy cheap and nasty electronic products (‘cos they’re cheap!).

One day, the catalogue of errors that are ‘crap cells’ with flammable electrolytes will turn into the perfect storm and somewhere, perhaps, a lot of people will die, just like they did in London (thanks to flammable building materials) this summer. For other chemistries, it’s the equivalent of Weinstein’s alleged sex misdemeanours.

Isn’t it time you guys named and shamed?


Don’t die… just get bought!

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 12:49 -- Paul Crompton

Now is a great time to sell your battery manufacturing business— to an oil company.

The age of oil isn’t over yet but those in fossil fuels know it’s coming, so now is the time to diversify. Some have been doing it for years— BP for example— an early entrant into solar energy.

So it’s hardly any surprise to see that SAFT, the French battery specialist,  just got snapped up by Total, the multinational but French rooted oil and gas corporation.

It only seems like yesterday that SAFT was trying to wriggle free from Alcatel, the French telecom player, back in the late 90s. The SAFT management were frustrated, merely being just a division in a business which was expanding in all directions— internet, cellular and the term ‘energy storage’ wasn’t really in executive vernacular. It is now.

SAFTs specialist lithium products have proven too costly for the hybrid and EV market but acceptable for the military and aerospace markets.

And while the company had at least one interesting liason with Johnson Controls, it seems to have been a little lack lustre of late— and maybe a little rudderless following the unexpected death of John Searle, its former chairman and highly energetic commercial manager, in 2014.

Maybe there’s a lesson here— that if battery companies are really going to reap the rewards of the energy storage market, they are going to have be part of bigger energy businesses with access to capital and management resources they sorely lack.

If you look east, the big players in batteries, LG Samsung and Panasonic are all part of much larger concerns in the electrical and electronics field.

Small is beautiful up to a point. But if energy storage is really going to change the world it needs to be part of something bigger. That might be one way that lead acid industry gets itself away from the abyss it could be heading for.

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.

No-fly lithium looks very possible

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 15:47 -- gerry@bestmag.co.uk

There are few inside the battery industry who haven’t seen a video of a lithium-ion cell going into thermal runaway, shooting out flames and gas like some kind of giant firework.

There are enough battery specialists who can appreciate and calculate the release of energy from such devices and have the imagination to visualise the domino effect that could take place when one defective cell goes wrong in a pallet containing maybe several thousand cells.

There are plenty of battery specialists who’ve come across the unscrupulous and counterfeit battery manufacturers beyond the Middle East. Lithium-ion batteries are classed as dangerous goods for good reason: they store considerable quantities of energy and they can fail, due to faults in manufacture, poor quality control or poor design. Even the best have been caught out— GS Yuasa and Boeing.

Thanks to the US Federal Aviation Authority we now know that just ten18650 cells— a tiny fraction of those in a Tesla car, can create enough heat and gas to blow open a 737 cargo hold.

The situation gets worse if the cells are fully charged… partially-charged cells produce less gas, apparently. Long term, it appears that costly containment of lithium-ion cells and batteries would be the only risk-mitigation one could reasonably put in place, as is being formalised for the fixed lithium batteries providing back-up power in civil aircraft.

Containment will add to weight and cost and it doesn’t take a genius to see that manufacturers will be limited in the number of cells being air freighted.

Aviation is still incredibly safe— if you are one of these unlucky ones, IATA have shown quite conclusively that the number of “battery incidents” which have resulted in deaths is just one incident in ten years. Weather, loss-of-control and even depressed pilots have killed more.

But it’s not a comforting thought to consider that beneath your feet on many commercial jets is a stack of batteries that might just turn your plane into a flaming coffin at cruising altitude.

Even if no ban on air-freighting of lithium-ion happens wouldn’t it be pertinent for manufacturers to start considering global warehousing of the product and transport by sea and land? We now know the best fire suppressant, (halon) won’t work in a hold fire, so if such an event happens and you can’t land in minutes, it’s a catastrophe.

Once this story fully emerges properly in the public domain, rationality won’t prevail. Not carrying lithium-ion cells (as some carriers have already adopted) will be a sales advantage to freight carriers and passenger operators alike.

Poor emissions lead to sales revisions

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 16:28 -- Vic

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, but the ill wind that’s been blowing through Volkswagen these past few weeks may deliver a positive benefit to the battery industry if its industry Guru, Menachem Anderman, is to be believed.

In his latest missive, the XeV insider report (October 2015) Anderman believes the Volkswagen emissions scandal is about to force automakers to push the pedal to the floor on PHEVs development and introduction, with a consequent boost to the battery business. The beneficiaries are likely to be lithium ion battery makers in Asia.

The VW scandal that has been given acres of media coverage and cost the company billions of dollars, will probably result in even tougher emissions requirements and testing.

And these new standards can only be met through Plug in hybrids and EVs.

Yet VW in Europe has had an historically conservative approach to electric drive trains. This is likely to change because of VW’s strong interests in China says Anderman.

It will be interesting to see what the knock on effect will be on diesel sales generally as the reputation of all diesels are trashed as a consequence of VW’s appalling deceptions. And one wonders about other so called  emissions reductions technology— particularly stop start. Laboratory test are one thing but we have all heard stories of stop start system being deactivated both officially and unofficially, because car owners don’t like them and real world fuel consumption improvement is likely to be small. We’re waiting for that little can of worms to be opened with interest.

And with gasoline and diesel prices falling in real terms in the west, where are the incentives for hybrid and EV sales? Interestingly Anderman doesn't say much about vehicle volumes but lithium-ion pack prices are likely to fall. Perhaps we should be waiting with baited breath to see whether Apple will enter the EV car market.

Or better, take a look at Ed Buiel’s article in the current issue of BEST magazine. The real market for hybridisation may be trucks. New EPA rules will force trucking firms to buy hybridised tractors.  They get replaced regularly each year and hybridised versions are likely to save money. Because it’s going to take something really revolutionary to move battery costs, sales volumes and margins off their now very predictable market trajectories, if Anderman’s partly disguised charts in his teaser flyer are to be believed.

Storage doomsayers unite

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 10:01 -- gerry@bestmag.co.uk

This writer tries to avoid TV news these days; From the refugee torrent out of Africa into Europe, the tit-for-tat terrorist bombings in the Middle east, it’s just too awful to contemplate. Batteries, (when not arming bombs and missiles) are relatively innocuous things and when involved in the firming of renewables, they do good. But last week, at the Electricity Storage Association’s technical meeting, the industry was told it is not doing anywhere near enough.

The millions of dollars Imre Gyuk and colleagues raised to get ‘batteries on the ground’ and cycling isn’t even a pin prick on the problem. Who says so? One William F Pickard, senior professor in electrical engineering at the University of Washington at St Louis. I hadn’t heard of him either. I don’t think he’s crazy though. Neither should you.

To quote from his website: “Energy Sustainability is the ‘Grand Challenge of science in the 21stCentury”.  If we cannot, without destroying our environment, generate enough energy to support our global industrial civilization, then our civilization will crash.” 

Now he’s got the numbers. It’ll happen around 2050 or thereabouts— I’m not too worried, because I probably won’t reach my mid 90s, dues to a combination of my underlying health issues and UK government austerity policies. But a lot of our readers and our children are going to feel the heat (or the icy blast) if he’s right.

The numbers are mind boggling. In America, the average person makes a demand of 1.3kW of electricity on the system per day. Now let’s suppose you’re in a blackout like the one Pickard and I both shared in 2006 in St Louis. It was miserable and sticky. And that wasn’t just the weather. I got out after three days (but it cost me plenty). Pickard said it went on for four.

He calculates that for the Metropolitan District of St Louis to have ridden through that blackout, the electricity storage capability necessary to have done that was close to a Gigwatt/day. The cost? Perhaps US$10billion— greater than the capitalization of the whole of the area’s power generation and distribution network. Just one city. You can see why the electricity industry is just a little wary of electricity storage. It’s like a decent retirement fund— you just can’t afford it and pay off your student debt and the mortgage and your daughter’s wedding and the care scheme for when your folks go ga ga.

Pickard’s doomsday scenario is much linked with peak fossil fuel limits and a more equal distribution of the electrical energy resources the world has at its disposal. And the fact that there’s abundant sunshine— 300 EJ a year reigning down on the Earth. If you can capture it, you’re still in the game of civilization. If you can’t it’s Mad Max time. Storing just 0.1% of it would cost a bundle. Pickard reckons a cool $US42billion and that’s if you get the storage cost per kW down to under US$90/KWh… that’s an awful lot of lead-acid batteries, but sadly they’re not in the frame.

Pickard’s numbers go exponential from then on. He suggests America alone needs to invest US$100billion a year now, on all the energy storage it’s going to need, if current lifestyles are to be maintained. How you administer all this spending and research is not even touched on. The cloning of Imre Gyuk?— never mind the stem cell therapy that will be necessary to keep him around for the next 30 years or more?

Pickard doesn't think it will happen and in his words, the world is ‘scuppered’. And no one in Washington is listening. Even if they were, would they understand?

Gerry Woolf

What matters: FIFA or ESA….the ball is in your court.

Mon, 06/01/2015 - 11:32 -- gerry@bestmag.co.uk

So ESA’s annual event is over for another year. It’s no longer an event for battery scientists or even battery vendors but it looks like an excellent networking event for everyone else.  As a conference with formal presentations, forget it.

If you have something to say that adds to the argument, you need to write a paper and to deliver that to an audience, you need to create slides for your power point. And you’ll need to get clearance from your company’s lawyers and PRs.

Too much hassle. So panel discussions predominate. Mumble into your boots and agree with the other guys. Might be good if you knew who was on the panel? It all looks like, and sounds like, a bad TV chat show with C listers as guests.

No hard take home messages with facts. Remember those? Some energised speakers for sure, but sometimes it was hard to tell whether this was a stand up comedy show or a political rally.

Energy storage is not about job creation but it is all about making efficient use of electricity generation assets and reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the climate. It’s also about making money — hence the presence of the bankers. If only there could be another way for accessing capital. Access to prosperity needs money and electricity. Clearly showing my age and my politics here.

Still, for all that, Energy Storage has come of age, led by the progressive US states of California and New York, their utilities, some wise heads and a little tech Viagra this month from Mr Musk. You just have to show it works. I didn’t see too much of that. I wonder what the old guard of Dr Phil Symonds and Brad Roberts would have made of it all?

The rest of the world is way behind America on this and have much catching up to do — that much is clear.

But in a week when global media was more concerned about whether FIFA was corrupt from top to bottom,  did it matter?  If you can’t see the truth about FIFA, I’d suggest you’re half blind. And if you can’t see the benefits of storage, you’re totally blind! The world’s media wasn’t really here.

Being corrupt will probably make you rich…but banking on electricity storage to swell your fortunes is still, sadly, uncertain.

Musk has set the pot boiling

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 10:58 -- gerry@bestmag.co.uk

It’s funny how us lesser beings can pursue a technical topic till we’re blue in the face and no one seems to take any notice. Electrical Energy Storage is just one such topic.

I feel passionately about this because I was inspired to launch BEST magazine nearly 13 years ago based on what I’d heard from the great and the good from the US Electricity Storage Associations’ meetings at the end of the last century… people like Phil Symonds, Garth Corey, Brad Roberts and others could see the future and it made sense to me as a journalist covering the battery field.

It seems a long time ago and many people have put in huge amounts of effort to achieve… well not as much as we’d hoped for. Then a technology Rock Star like Elon Musk speaks and the world changes. Now every news hack across the globe is writing about energy storage and with luck it won’t go away.

Musk’s announcement is self-serving but it helps all battery makers and all chemistries, including good old lead-acid.

The much-hyped Tesla Giga factory in Nevada needs a rapid ramp up in output if the battery pack cost reductions Musk hopes for in his electric car programme is to happen.

Diversification into domestic electricity storage could help and with a much-mentioned US$800m in orders, well it’s a start.

Of course, it also means a rapid ramp-up for the whole of Tesla’s supply chain— more separator, more electrolyte, more electrode foils— in short, a massive increase in risk for all concerned. It’s what the USA has been good at in the past— in terms of technology— when a goal is set and the resources marshalled accordingly. But lithium-ion is not the only choice. Lead-acid still has a future in this market, if it gets its marketing right and the whole of the supply, installation and finance chain. Musk is doing the battery industry a favour but how many of you will capitalise on it?

We’ll see if that’s happening. I’ll be reporting from the Electricity Storage Association’s event in Dallas this week and more importantly from the Intersolar show in Munich in early June. We’ll be picking up on the best. If you want to tell the world what you’re doing… ESPL is a key route for doing it. Contact me.


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