Pb2017: A look back, a look forward

The International Lead Association held its 20th conference (Pb2017) last week in Berlin with a series of presentations showing yet again that the future of lead is now inextricably bound up with the future of lead batteries.

Andy Bush, managing director of the ILA, said the lead industry had too long been on the defensive and it was time to “contrast the positives of lead to the downsides of other technologies”.

One of the themes underpinning the conference — and its pre-meeting workshop on lead occupational exposure management — was the notion that improvements can be made for almost every aspect of the lead industry.

Norbert Maleschitz, vice president for Exide Europe, forcefully made the point that a huge list of improvements, from calcium tin alloys to continuous casting to advanced carbon additives, were the result of the past 25 years’ development.

He looked forward to continued improvements in dynamic charge acceptance, to greater use of carbon blacks, graphenes and graphites in pushing out performance.

The arrival in a major way of start-stop cars — where lead batteries were a hugely effective way to increase auto performance — should give the industry a solid price advantage over the next generation of electric vehicles.

The conference as a whole looked at improvements and news across the entire industry from smelting to the latest research.

Tim Ellis, vice president for research at RSR, for example, was able to show how the very tools used to look at how lithium cells were developed was being used by RSR, East Penn and the Argonne Laboratory to view the insides of the crystal structures within a lead battery in real time charging and discharging.

There were many other excellent papers including lead price forecasts, usage of lead in China, blood lead levels, and a particularly strong one from the ILA’S Steve Binks.

Binks made the point that the industry needed to go on the attack, given that there was a strong regulatory pressure to replace lead, a tried and tested product that is perfectly recyclable, with lithium, which is neither tried nor tested, especially in the light of everything from the $4 billion send back of Samsung mobile batteries to the mounting fears over aircraft safety with the growing number of lithium fires of laptops, ipads and the like.

On a reflective note, Andy Bush compared the presentations of the first such conference held in 1962 and today’s agenda.

The first conference programme focused on various applications of lead sheet and lead chemicals, with just a modest session on the growing market for lead batteries. But the session that attracted the most papers — 12 in all — was on lead cable sheathing. How odd to think the first paper on health and the environment appeared in 1971.

“In those days,” he said. “Lead batteries accounted for just 30% of lead used — now the figure is 85%. This means that we’re now in a world where the future of lead rests almost entirely on the future for lead batteries.”