Electric tooth brushing may be coming to an end, but industrial NiCd is safe. The Editor reports through a face-to-face interview with John Searle of SAFT.
As BEST was going to press the European Commission was deliberating over its draft impact assessment for the long awaited Battery Directive. Rather than have no directive at all, it looks most likely that the business interests of Europe’s largest nickel cadmium battery maker, SAFT, will remain untouched. Too bad though if you make rechargeable toothbrushes, razors or even toys. Small portable NiCd batteries look set to be phased out in the next four years, which might explain why I only had to pay a few pounds sterling for a new rechargeable toothbrush in the UK. The batteries were fine – but a replacement head for my existing model was nowhere to be found! It also explains the abundance of nickel metal hydride rechargeables in consumer stores.
Joking aside, the fact that Brussels bureaucrats have compromised on the position of industrial NiCd has come as a great relief to the management of SAFT, as well as its customers in aviation, railway, telecom and emergency lighting markets to name but a few. An outright ban on NiCd would have created havoc for these customers. Qualification of batteries for aircraft, for example, is an expensive and lengthy process. But industrial NiCd is safe.
Industrial batteries (exempt from the ban) are defined as any battery or accumulator used for industrial purposes, for instance as standby or motive power or in emergency lighting or alarm systems, and any battery or accumulator used for electric vehicles.
The building industry would have been none too pleased either: the professional power tool market, which is heavily dependent on NiCd even now, is exempt from the NiCd ban too.
Cordless power tools, which constitute some 70% of the portable NiCd market, will now have a transitional phase-out period – for which the EU Presidency has suggested four years. Small wonder Chinese lithium makers have been courting the likes of Black & Decker and Bosch.
Much of the lobbying in the campaign to fight a total ban has been carried out by SAFT, but wherever you go outside of Europe there is concern that other Governments may follow the EU example. So despite industrial NiCd being spared the chop in Europe, has the image of the chemistry been damaged in the seven-year battle for common sense?
John Searle MD doesn’t think so. “The latest Airbus will be going with NiCd, and we know the jury’s still out at Boeing,” he says. “The military is another story. What they want is weight reduction, lower maintenance costs and more performance. It’s hardly surprising that they’re moving to lithium ion. The specifiers are engineers first and foremost, and the thinking will be performance driven. With the great majority of commercial airliners likely to fly for 30 years and new battery chemistry qualification a big expense with no benefits, industrial NiCd has a good 25+ years ahead.”
The railway market is still very satisfied with NiCd. “I can only think of one example where they haven’t gone for NiCd – and that’s on a light tram system where the customer has specified nickel metal hydride batteries, because space is tight,” says Searle. And railway and metro development is going through the roof in Asia, which partly explains why SAFT is setting up an industrial battery assembly plant in China, thought the precise location is not certain. Searle says the cells will be made in Bordeaux, but the final assembly, which accounts for a third of costs, will be carried out closer to the point of use.
It’s unlikely therefore that the industrial NiCd market will fade quickly. The consumer market is another story, but the reasons for that are well known. As wise Japanese battery sage Hideo Takeshita has reported for several years, other battery chemistries had simply got better performance and had become cheaper except for one or two price-sensitive markets: power tools and toys.
And will the partial phasing out of consumer NiCd make any real difference to our exposure to cadmium in the future? Probably not, which is why one senses a deep sense of anger from SAFT’s management and elsewhere in the battery business. “It’s not about science, it’s about politics,” says Searle.
And that’s neatly summarised by the conclusion of the findings of the EU Commission’s consultants Bio Intelligence. They found that, from a global risk point of view, a ban on all NiCd batteries is not relevant to reducing total human exposure to cadmium, because batteries do not represent a significant source of cadmium emissions to the environment. As for portable NiCd batteries and local risks, there is no available data to conclude on whether or not a ban will reduce the risk. The targeted risk assessment came to similar conclusions: even if NiCd batteries end up in municipal waste streams and are not collected and recycled, the risk to man through the presence of cadmium in air, water and soil was very small.
On this point alone, the UK Independence Party gets BEST’s vote.
Of course, the marketeers of small NiCd batteries are angry; but in the long run they will lose out to superior chemistries anyway.
SAFT has other fish to fry, most notably in the provision of lithium ion batteries for hybrid electric vehicles. SAFT expects to be supplying batteries to a European vehicle maker for inclusion in a demonstration fleet by 2008.
Searle dismisses the safety concerns about lithium by Japanese makers which have been expressed at auto industry conferences around the globe. “Yes, our electrolyte is flammable, but so is the 60 litres of gasoline in every car. And European and US makers have to take a decision soon on whether to be wholly dependent on Japanese technology, or look elsewhere.”
A year on from the Doughty Hanson acquisition, SAFT is continuing to deliver increased sales and profits despite the unpleasant odour of EU interference on half of its business. Let’s hope increased rail, telecom and aviation interest in relatively benign NiCd technology ensures the EU Commission stench is finally cleared.