Contributed Commentary by Matt Raiford
January 9, 2020 | When Gaston Planté created the first rechargeable lead battery in 1859, it was impossible to foresee the many uses the world would find for his invention. Today, after 160 years of use, lead batteries remain the dominant battery chemistry and comprise more than 70% of the $80 billion global battery market.
Our expectation is that lead batteries indefinitely continue to meet the critical needs of a growing population and its desire to be mobile and connected with access to green solutions for transportation and energy storage. In fact, Global Market Insights foresees steady growth through 2025 when the market is expected to reach $500 billion.
The greatest growth is predicted in the energy storage market where Wood Mackenzie estimates that the annual value of the U.S. market will grow about 32% between 2018 and 2019, closing the year at $645 million. It will then leap to nearly $5.4 billion by 2024, an increase of 737%.
To participate in that growth, lead battery manufacturers and suppliers invested more than $100 million in research and development in 2018. Many of these manufacturers are members of the Consortium for Battery Innovation (CBI) which formalized a Technical Road Map to focus the industries’ research in two areas: automotive and energy storage.
According to CBI, the highest priority target research goal for the automotive sector is to increase dynamic charge acceptance by five times by the year 2022. That is a key technical parameter for micro– and mild-hybrids, vehicles which significantly reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption.
Lead batteries’ role in green transportation is two-fold. They enable both start-stop vehicle technology and the electric vehicle (EV) revolution. Through start-stop vehicle technology 4.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions are prevented annually in the U.S. In EVs, lead batteries support critical onboard functions for safety and security. For example, if an EV’s primary battery fails or overheats, the auxiliary lead battery is the back-up battery. It ensures the driver can still brake, steer, and access essential electrical functions in an emergency.
CBI has also announced a pilot program for lead-battery–supported EV charging stations, funded through a competitive grant awarded by the state of Missouri and made possible by funds from the U.S. Department of Energy State Energy Program. The competitive grant award will support a feasibility study to investigate advanced lead battery energy storage deployed alongside EV charging points at Missouri gas stations.
Innovation in the industry extends beyond improving battery performance, to recycling. Most people are unaware that newer battery technologies, such as lithium-ion, are recycled at a rate of less than 5%. By contrast, the 99% recycling rate of lead batteries have enabled one of the most successful closed-loop systems in the circular economy. Research projects such as a new collaboration between Gopher Resource and Oak Ridge National Lab aim to significantly enhance the sustainable nature of lead recycling and impact the entire value chain. The “Reverb Furnace Productivity Project” is a joint, year-long initiative to advance the sustainable nature of the lead recycling industry—and help the metallurgical industry as a whole, by improving the energy efficiency of the reverb furnaces.
Studies for head-to-head cost comparisons vary widely, but we do know that lead batteries as a technology, not application specific, require three times less energy per kWh to produce than lithium: 450 kWh per 1 kWh lithium: 150 kWh for 1 kWh lead.
In addition to the points above, lead batteries offer advantages across their many applications.
- In SLI (AGM and enhanced flooded) only lead batteries hit all the CCA (cold crank amp performance) necessary for the automotive market.
- In telecom and UPS there is a major cost advantage tied to lower manufacturing and shipping cost (Class 9 Hazardous for lithium; lithium can’t be moved via airfreight). Lead is a proven resource and doesn’t face the regulatory hurdles such as local building and fire codes that lithium has experienced. Telecom and UPS batteries sustain 4G and will be integral in 5G. 5G will require new equipment and more infrastructure which will be supplied by both lead and lithium. We expect to see close to a billion–dollar increase between the two industries. Lead will dominate in countries that are doing rapid deployment (India, parts of Africa, Western China, Vietnam, etc.).
- In ESS, there are the beginnings of headway for lead batteries, and growth will come as lead battery manufacturers and systems integrators collaborate. Not to be dismissed are safety concerns with lithium-ion for ESS, as realized by recent incidents in Korea and Arizona.
- Motive power lead batteries will continue to make gains. In some situations, lithium is better, but lead offers many cost advantages and acts dual purpose as a counter weight. Switching from conventional lead batteries to lead Fast or Opportunity charging, will eliminate a battery charging room (whether existing or new) and the cost of battery changes.
There are few industries that can claim to have successfully evolved into a third century of meeting market needs, but with a track record of investment in continuous improvement and a strong sustainability profile, the lead battery industry is committed to a bright energy future.
Dr. Matt Raiford is the manager of the Consortium for Battery Innovation. He holds a B.S. in Chemistry from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from University of Texas at Austin. Matt has spent the last five years working on materials development in active materials for lead batteries. He is focused on improving dynamic charge acceptance and cycle life in lead batteries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.