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Are Lead Acid Batteries Old Fashioned?

By Tom Cross, Director Business Development at First National Battery (FNB)
Being the oldest of the battery technologies in commercial use today, it’s easy to understand why lead acid batteries are considered “old fashioned”. However, the contrary is true. Every year this industry announces advancements in active material formulations, alloy types or manufacturing processes.
A lot has happened since the first lead acid battery was developed in the 19th century. Their size has decreased, their cost has dropped, and their performance and life increased multifold. The car batteries manufactured twenty years ago would not last in today’s cars, despite the fact that they were much larger then.
New battery types such as nickel-cadmium, sodium metal chloride, nickel metal-hydrate and lithium ion have emerged. All of these have found applications, some less universal than others. Yet, the lead acid battery is still the most widely used, the most proven and the best understood. It is also the most recycled battery in South Africa, and therefore environmentally friendly.
The way forward for electric vehicles
The first battery powered electric cars were developed around 1840. Following Gaston Planté’s development of the rechargeable lead acid battery in 1865, battery powered electric vehicles flourished. A hundred years ago, all the milk trucks in London were battery driven.
So battery driven electric vehicles are not new. Most forklifts operating in warehouses and cold rooms today are battery driven, as are most golf carts. Even the locomotives pulling ore trains in underground mines, and the scoops that load coal in collieries use batteries.
The use of batteries to power electric vehicles is commonplace. The exception has been the automotive industry. Advances over time in internal combustion engines (IC’s), the discovery of crude oil, the proliferation of highways and lifestyle changes resulted in IC vehicles becoming commonplace.
However, clean environmental practices are now demanding reduced carbon emissions from our cars. And while the concept of 100 per cent electric cars for general use is still some time away, lead acid batteries offer a carbon reduction solution.
Hybrid drives
Rather than a completely battery or IC powered vehicle, the trend is toward hybrid vehicles. These comprise smaller IC engines with batteries to assist.
In these applications, the IC engine will switch off when the car stops at a traffic light – in the time it takes a traffic light to change, an IC engine can produce a volume of carbon-monoxide the size of a large room. Then, when the accelerator is depressed, the battery will restart the engine and the car will drive off. During acceleration, the generator previously used to charge the battery will act as a battery powered motor and assist the engine. When the brakes are applied, the generator will act as a charger, using the braking energy to recharge the battery.
The duty required of a battery for this application has therefore changed from simply starting the engine, to regular discharge and recharge. Energy will therefore be moved in and out of the battery on a regular basis. This is known as cycling.
The development of hybrid vehicles therefore necessitates a battery capable of both starting and cycling duty. The spillproof Raylite Ultimate battery with AGM technology, manufactured by First National Battery, is the solution. This revolutionary battery technology has been specially developed for Start/Stop vehicles.
For the same size as the conventional battery, this technology delivers up to 30 per cent more current – ideal for demanding starting applications – plus three times the cycle life compared to a conventional battery. It is designed to actively assist the engine in accelerating, decelerating and minimizing inactive idling, thus reducing fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. The battery design also incorporates high resistance to vibration, which is essential in large diesel-powered vehicles.
While this development was driven by the automotive industry, it also has many applications in the industrial sector.
A battery for each application
The high cycling performance that AGM technology offers longer battery life for solar power systems, where cycle life is important. Before the South African energy crisis a few years back, most reserve power systems required batteries capable of a high discharge rate and a long float life. Today users are looking for batteries with these features, plus frequent discharge capability to match the higher incidence of power failures.
Other applications include home inverters and golf carts. This technology has been used with great success in millions of miners’ cap-lamp batteries, where the battery is cycled on a daily basis.