A fleeting visit, a couple of phone calls, and a desire to get new processes off the ground… Gerry Woolf plays matchmaker to the battery business?
Restrictive covenants and non-compete agreements, privatisation of state-owned industries and the election of extreme right-wing leaders are just some of things this writer abhors.
Thankfully nothing lasts for ever. A little more than a year and a half ago, Battle Glascock was freed of his chains and, in the time that has elapsed, he has established a new engineering business to rebuild his fortune. And in that short period Glascock senior has laid the foundations for what could fundamentally change lead-acid battery making.
Some of BEST’s readers will remember our account of his departure from General Thermal, the company that he built and sold to Sovema. Glascock senior has learned some lessons: one of them is never to be dependent on any one industry. His new company, Industrial Technology Group (ITG), only derives 40% of its business from building specialised production equipment for lead-acid battery makers. He’s ‘out of love’ with partnerships, too.
His younger brother Chris – who works in the same premises but operates under the name Glascock International – represents BM Battery Machines in the US, operates an environment/process control consultancy, and sometimes wins business for his older brother. Glascock senior developed a curing system which he claims is very much improved over systems presently available, and with Chris’s marketing assistance, he is definitely giving the competitors something to wonder about – and the battery builder much more for much less!
The remaining 60% of the business is generated in the food production, automotive and appliance industries that find their home in “Dixie”. Significant investment into the business and the build-up of a talented engineering staff enables ITG to design, build, install and endorse speciality production lines and high speed automated assembly cells for a wide range of processes. Obviously the exposure to these other industries can only help in the solution of production problems that inevitably arise in battery making.
The broad range of automation technologies and insights in his portfolio, including vision-based systems, robotic manipulation systems and 3-D modelling software, have hardly impacted the battery business – a pity really, when this technology has been so widely employed elsewhere to augment quality and inspection processes. On his office wall are the patent notices he’s already been granted. It doesn’t take much to see that this man is driven, and keen to make things happen. In fact I have great difficulty in getting this interview down in my notebook – he’s constantly interrupted by calls, e-mails and people stepping into the office.
Given the tough business climate for lead-acid process machine specialists (a hiked lead price consolidation and the impact of China), if one can do other things then why come back to lead-acid batteries?
Despite an ability to drive his engineering business any which way he chooses, Glascock has found himself drawn inexorably toward the lead-acid battery, like a moth to a flame. It’s the same draw that has attracted others – a desire to improve what is essentially a 19th century invention and to make it deliver closer to its theoretical energy density of 50 Wh/kg.
Glascock, like the best of you, has looked at the weak spots in the battery – and my, there are plenty. A good starting point is always the existing literature, and he has immersed himself in it totally.
It should be no surprise then that he found himself looking pretty closely at the grid and, in particular, the grid-to-paste interface. It’s less than ideal for the task. If you think about it, and research the patents of our forepasters, Bush and Farre, it is easy to see that after all of these years we have never really attempted to chemically bridge the interface of the grid wall and the paste or active material face with anything other than a hope of continuity and a tighter grip on the active material. For over 150 years the approach has been to manipulate the grid design to mechanically hold the active material on the surface and expect the continuity to be there! If anything, we have made every attempt to expand the chasms by not providing any grid surface pretreatment prior to pasting. We are all guilty of leaving the machining fluids on the surface of our stamped and expanded metal strip without worry about its potential detrimental effect on the grid-to-active material interface. A bit like leaving dirt in an open wound, wouldn’t you say?
And here’s the rub: no matter what method you currently use to produce the grids – strip casting with expansion, stamping or book mould casting, there is no process in extensive use today that chemically improves or promotes the grid-to-active material interface. There is no production method that is intended solely for the manipulation of the grid surface crystallography with the intent to provide the perfect ‘abutment’, if you will, for the development of the bridge. And this is far from a good thing. In addition to the poor surface pretreatment, Mother Nature has thrown another little nasty our way that causes more than its share of harm. The naturally-occurring lead oxide layer that forms over the surface of the grid during storage is a poor conductor of electricity and drastically impedes formation. Tests have shown a dramatic increase in electrical conductivity just by removing this oxide layer. Call it formation constipation! No, we are not talking about putting the industry on a high-fibre diet, but maybe about trimming a few pounds of lead and saving a few bucks in the process.
The paste-to-grid interface and the cracks and fissures that result from poor interface contact are perfect places for the build-up of sulphates, further leading the battery down that road to destruction. But that is an electromechanical issue. The big problem is positive grid surface corrosion. Grid surface grain architecture is accepted as a given, and you must utilise the grid production method that best fits your battery application and causes the least amount of corrosion failure, right?
This is no longer the case, according to Glascock. He puts it simply: all the other current-conducting pathways in the battery structure are continuous except the active material to grid interface. This critical part of the system is also the most vulnerable to future failure modes, and is also the least investigated.
So the answer then is surely to just clean the grids and somehow eliminate the layer of lead oxide prior to pasting and we are there. Right? Not quite; there’s more to it. Glascock theorises that not only should we eliminate any adhesion detractor component in this area of the battery, but we should enhance the bond and promote continuity while controlling corrosion. A nice idea, but if it can be done, what are the chances of the battery industry adopting such a process?
Like many industry observers, Glascock has been sorely disappointed by the industry’s unwillingness to adopt new processes.
But it’s easy to see why. Rarely does new technology behave in quite the way its vendors propose. There are always teething problems – and when you are making a product with pretty slim margins, why complicate matters and make them worse? If this process is to be adopted then it has to slip into the existing battery line – not result in the old one being torn up. And the idea is simple enough. Take the book mould grids, expanded strip, stamped strip or whatever, and simply coat them with a layer of lead dioxide.
It’s simple really. Lead dioxide is electrically conductive, it can be deposited electrochemically and it provides the perfect priming layer prior to pasting, all the while providing a corrosion barrier with perfect columnar crystallography.
And bench scale tests have shown that lead dioxide cleaned and plated grids survive a lot longer than non-coated ones. At the same time the formation time is decreased, the lead content in the calcium grid is reduced by up to 30%, and the manufacturer can tailor his grid to whatever surface form he wants. At last, designer grids!
So it’s a good idea? Well, in theory yes… that is if no-one else has invented it before you have applied to the patent office. And last October, Glascock thought he was looking defeat in the face. It turns out that another interested party had come up with the same idea, but only in theory. But they had no practical process to achieve this ‘lead into gold’ alchemy. Enter Glascock stage right. A process that represents a completely new direction for grid surface design that actually has a payback, and a significant one at that! And it is faster than you may think.
But hold on. It’s not only me that’s arrived in Chattanooga. There’s the Winter issue of BEST and I gently lead him to the article on page 23 – Faradaic deposition of electroformed grids. It turns out Glascock had met Hans Warlimont in Rome in 2002, a memorable conference for all of us. But he’d lost contact. “You’ve simply got to meet him again,” I suggested. Warlimont called me back on my cellular (I have the bill!!!) and 20 minutes later Glascock was booking flights to Dresden.
Ten days later Glascock e-mailed me with the news that he and DSL Dresden had come to a preliminary agreement to co-operate on the development of a cast grid coating system, initially with a customer’s strip processing system, to be developed in the near future. The system can be used to process the manufacturer’s expanded metal, stamped or book mould cast grids now being used in the battery with drastically enhanced or shall we say PERFECT PLATE to order crystallography and chemical composition.
The marriage of the two processes optionally adds the DSL lead deposition technology for grid corrosion protection to the mix to enable the manufacturer to ‘Have it your own way’. Less lead in VRLA, faster formation, better active material adhesion, much improved corrosion control and, to top it all off, a method to achieve these illusive traits. This new process combines the Glascock method of stripping lead oxide and plating lead dioxide with DSL Dresden’s lead or lead tin electrodeposition technology into one machine. The result is a perfect bridge between the base lead alloy grid and the active material. The grid corrosion issues for new continuous processing systems can now be washed down the drain. Paste adhesion and electrical continuity problems as well as the ritual overcasting of VRLA are flushable. Now that spells relief!
Now all we need to do is utilise Pat Mosely’s lead dioxide paste doping techniques and we will all have another 150 years to analyse how to make it just a little better!
BEST has a new function in the world… not so much a trade magazine, more a marriage bureau!