For the past quarter century, the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium — chronologically more or less parallel in time with Batteries International — has represented the advancing technology of the industry.
The ALABC story— from its foundations to dynamic charge acceptance

It’s odd to think some of the heaviest smogs over Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s were to give birth to the ALABC — the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium.

But the connection is valid.

In 1990 the California Air Resources Board introduced landmark legislation requiring that 10% of all cars sold in the state by 2013 had to be zero emission vehicles. With almost 25 years to clean up their act the Big Three automobile firms in the US put their heads together. And when two or more of the Big Three are gathered together, federal purses open like magic.

So in early 1991 the US Department of Energy announced a three-year, $262 million programme. The result was the US Advanced Battery Consortium, the ALABC. Its mandate was to research battery technologies for electric vehicles. But for all its virtues, and it had many, the USABC had one particular quirk — it decided that it would research all energy storage possibilities bar one. The lead acid battery.

“It’s dinosaur technology,” said one DoE official at the time, dismissing in a phrase what had been the industry workhorse for over a century.

Realizing the implications of USABC — that the very life of the entire lead acid business was potentially at stake — the industry was left reeling. It was more than blatant unfairness, the discriminatory nature of where the funding was being directed was absurd.

The key figure in the fight back at the beginning was Jerry Cole, head of the ILZRO, the US-based International Lead Zinc Research Organization. For a long time the ILZRO had provided a spirited defence against the attacks made by the rise and rise of an environmental movement that increasingly seemed more concerned with image than scientific fact.

But Cole knew he had to take this further.

He proposed the idea of a counter body — also to receive funding from the US government if possible — that would promote research into lead as a source of motive power in the new kind of vehicles envisaged.

The crucial meeting — or perhaps more strictly one of the several crucial get-togethers — in the formation of the ALABC took place in June 1991 in California.

Cole gathered a group of battery manufacturers, smelters and other sections of the lead acid battery community and presented them with a simple proposition: could they create an organization that would look at the role of the lead acid battery as a source of automotive power? He outlined several proposals for a way forward.

And they liked them.

The next step was to take what was essentially a flip-chart presentation for the ALABC and flesh it out into a master plan they could sell to the industry.

Fleshing out the master plan 

In July Bob Nelson joined the ALABC as its programme manager and his first job was to do just that. “It was agreed early on that the focus would be on optimizing VRLA batteries for electric vehicle use,” he later wrote, “so roughly half of the programme would be fundamental research that would benefit all lead acid application areas.”

This in turn was refined to research in three areas: active materials and cycle life; grids/alloys/top lead and materials; and charging, battery management and electric vehicle battery testing.

That general approach has — broadly speaking — remained in place to this very day.

Another policy decision taken early on was that ALABC would be an open consortium with free sharing of all research among its members (although steps were taken to protect proprietary product information) — again a defining characteristic of the present ALABC.

Nelson recalled his satisfaction over this.

“The high point of my association with the ALABC was to see technical representatives from different lead acid companies from different countries and continents sitting around the same table expressing an interest in joining an international effort to improve lead acid batteries,” he wrote.

“This may not sound like such a big deal now but in those days most companies jealously guarded their secrets and were loathe to interact with other manufacturers on serious technical matters.”

In March 1992 the ALABC was formally created as a separate organization but under the umbrella of the ILZRO with its own resources and a planned expenditure of close to $5 million a year — most of which was derived from the members.

Although many of the great and good of the battery industry took part in the formation of the ALABC, the three figures that dominated its early years were Cole, Nelson and the tireless — and unpaid — work of David Prengaman,

“I agreed to become the technical director of the consortium and RSR allowed me the time to spend to assure the success of the group,” Prengaman told Batteries International.

Now in his 70s, “the lead pope”, as he has sometimes been called, is still active for the organization in the background.

The early programmes 

In the first and second ALABC programmes — and the 40+ projects carried out within them between 1992 and 1999 — the prime goal was to develop batteries suitable for electric vehicles. The lead acid batteries targeted in 1992 EVs were supposed to be highly durable and cost effective at deep discharge, which required reconsideration of all major components and parameters of the cell.

Almost all the materials used in the battery – lead alloys, grids, pastes and active materials, separators, additives, boxes and valves – needed to be improved.

The interest in EV batteries declined in the third programme ending in 2002, when it became clear that neither lead acid nor any other battery at that time was able to offer the energy, speed of recharge and cycle life required for the power source of future electric vehicles.

Nevertheless, the EV studies resulted in a dramatic improvement of most parameters of lead acid batteries and paved the way for developing the next generation of batteries for low emission transportation.

Despite their low price, lead acid batteries were not ready for electric vehicles because they didn’t last long, needed long recharge, were heavy and sulphuric acid could leak from some of them. Carmakers considered two solutions: to improve lead acid batteries and/or develop better alternatives based on nickel, lithium and the like.

Andy Bush, ILA

Andy Bush, ILA

Previous experience with golf carts, mining and industrial carts and forklift trucks showed that problems in the positive plate shorten the cycle life of lead acid batteries at deep cycling. The effect was called “premature capacity loss”, or PCL effect. Some of the batteries could be recovered by proper recharge (reversible PCL), others – no (irreversible PCL).

In 14 projects, teams from the Australian, Bulgarian, German, French and Czech electrochemical schools along with Tudor, Hagen, Hawker, CMP, Battelle Europe, Metaleurope, FIAMM etc, explained and presented the effects and mechanisms. CSIRO’s group under David Rand, who was to be programme manager in 2003, headed up the solution.

It was found that the reversible (PCL-1) effect is caused by the accumulation of phases of high ohmic resistance in the grid-positive/active mass (PAM) interface; while the PCL- 2 is a result of degradation of the rigid, elastic and conductive bonds between the lead dioxide particles forming the PAM structure. The ALABC studies also resulted in developing technological solutions for dramatic suppression or full elimination of this problem.

Another problem with lead acid batteries in EV applications was the need for fast recharge. Recharge time needed to be reduced from a couple of hours down to a couple of minutes – like filling a fuel tank.

Lead alloys were another battery component that were optimized to provide high mechanical strength to the grids and the top lead, to keep corrosion rates low and to maintain as low as possible rates of hydrogen and oxygen evolution. The role of alloy additives like Sn in the positive grid for suppressing the PCL effects had also to be considered. Four alloy projects were carried out by Mike Mayer and Norman Bagshaw, CSIRO and RSR.

All this required rewriting the battery science of years before. The efforts of the best researchers, battery manufacturers, suppliers and electric engineers were combined in 47 projects in these first seven years.

By the time the third programme was put in place for 2000-2002, it was clear that neither lead acid nor any other battery was able to offer substantial improvements in most aspects of lead acid batteries such as the energy, speed of recharge and cycle life for pure EVs.

That said, it was also clear that part of the propulsion energy for a vehicle could be provided by the battery — through tapping into the regenerative power afforded when braking. The ALABC’s focus changed from pure electric vehicles to hybrids.

The next large target was to be developing batteries for dual voltage – 42V/14V vehicles. The automakers wanted to replace the 12-volt electric system in the vehicles with a dual voltage (12V/42V) system which offered the benefits of higher power and smaller current devices in the vehicle, as well as easy attachment of an “idle stop” system. They hoped to reduce CO2 emissions and boost the automotive industry by improving fuel economy.

Between 2000 and 2007, four projects focusing on 42V batteries were carried out: one by the CSIRO, one by the EALABC involving Exide (CMP), FIAMM, Land Rover, Provector and the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick (ISOLAB-42), one by Exide (Tudor and CMP) and CSIRO, and by KEEP and Cranfield University (ISOTEST).

It was eventually to lead to one of the great successes of the ALABC — the UltraBattery.

Tapping regen power meant that the battery was continually being partially charged and discharged. One of the primary problems with a battery in a high rate partial state of charge is the rapid onset of negative plate sulfation — shorter battery life, less power delivery and poorer recharging.

The CSIRO connection 

Australian research organization CSIRO found that a combination of a battery and an electrochemical ultracapacitor operating in sulfuric acid — where a high surface area carbon electrode is connected in parallel to the negative plate and uses the high capacitance of the positive plate — solved the partial state of charge problem. The first patent was granted in 2005 to research head David Rand and Lan Lam the research manager. A fuller patent was released in 2007.

This has since been put into commercial products — in stationary batteries, cars and the grid. UltraBattery technology has been licensed to the Furukawa Battery in Japan and East Penn Manufacturing in the US.

Testing the new UltraBatteries in research and factory labs showed that they were good enough to compete with NiMH batteries. These results, however, did not automatically open the door to the market. It was necessary to demonstrate the batteries on the road and get the approval of the automotive industry for using LC batteries in real vehicles.

The first UltraBatteries were successfully tested in Millbrook, UK (Honda Insight vehicle) and easily exceeded the 100,000 miles target.

CSIRO and Cleantech Ventures also invested in technology start-up Ecoult, a spin-off which became an East Penn subsidiary, to develop and commercialize battery-based storage solutions. Ecoult battery technology aims to deliver a low-cost, high-performance, high-power, stationary energy storage solution suitable for grid-connected and remote applications.

Because of the research achievements already made, for the moment, ALABC projects were based on carbon added advanced lead acid batteries with optimized grid designs. In all, some 100 projects have been worked on these past 20 years.

As time went by, ALABC research that identified modifications that improve VRLA performance significantly have changed to initiatives that turn theory into practice, particularly for their deployment in hybrid vehicles.

Since the design features had not been tried in combination or tested in the field, the ALABC moved to providing practical demonstrations from January 2006 and theoretical studies formed the basis for building a working model, which was lab tested — and then evaluated in the field.

The ALABC in its seventh programme phase, which ended in 2012, chose to use half of them as demonstrations. A quarter of them studied the mechanisms of action of the carbon additives on the NAM.

Indeed, a large amount of the recent ALABC projects were based on carbon-added advanced lead acid batteries with optimized grid designs. In the fourth programme, for example, seven projects were focused on additives to the NAM for getting satisfactory performance at HRPSoC: two by the CSIRO and one by Hammond, Borregaard-Lignotech and Northstar. The idea of using a high surface area in the negative plate was further developed by other ALABC members. A variety of designs using carbon as an additive to the lead acid battery appeared. This design is registered under the logo “LC batteries”.

Later on this developed into some 12 projects looking dor the best carbons for lead–acid batteries, their concentration and combinations. These projects were with Hammond (involving also Northstar and the University of Chicago), Axion Power, the TU of Brno, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Exide Technologies, Spain.

In a later programme for the early 2010s some 12 projects studied the mechanisms of action of the carbon additives on NAM (with CoolOhm, USA, with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and with the Technical University of Brno, Czech Republic), and one (with EnerG2, USA) aimed at estimating the influence of carbon on the rate of hydrogen evolution.

“The results since the ALABC was founded have been impressive,” says Boris Monahov, programme manager of the ALABC who took over from Pat Moseley in 2010.

Indeed the whole landscape of how lead acid batteries are perceived is changing rapidly. Over the past two decades, as technological fads have come and gone, the ALABC has steadily delivered measurable improvements — and on several occasions step changes — in yet better VRLA batteries.

Research programmes ahead? 

The focus of the ALABC research changed — see page box — as part of the initiatives proposed by the ILA in its restructuring.

The last general assembly meeting of the new 2016-2018 ALABC Programme held in September in Malta approved a new strategy aimed at ensuring lead batteries remain the product of choice in automotive and industrial energy storage applications.

The announcement followed decisions made at the San Antonio general assembly in May, which agreed it was essential that the ALABC identify and fund, in the future, the highest impact work that would result in tangible benefits in the performance of lead acid batteries.

The work of ALABC is a key component in part of the International Lead Association’s larger strategy — a three pronged approach which involves communication, regulatory defence and product development.

“Lead batteries provide a unique combination of performance, low cost, safety and reliability that we believe no other battery technology can match,” says Andy Bush, managing director of ILA. “However, it is important that lead batteries can adapt and improve such that this continues to be the case”.

The new 2016-2018 programme consists of four work areas — two technical research and development and two technical communication ones.

The goal of the technical R&D programmes is to ensure that advanced lead batteries in automotive 12V and 48V applications and in industrial and energy storage applications continue to deliver the required performance at a lower cost than alternative technologies.

The ALABC membership is discussing quantifiable targets that will be set to ensure future R&D projects deliver on the overall goal of the consortium. The research for the automotive programme will specifically focus on improving DCA (dynamic charge acceptance) and lifetime at a Partial State of Charge (PSoC).

Similarly the technical R&D programme for industrial and energy storage applications will set targets for improving cycle life at PSOC and longer deep cycle life.

Bob Nelson

Bob Nelson

Recent improvements in lead battery performance have brought some products up to a level equivalent to lithium titanate batteries.

Boris Monahov, programme manager at ALABC, said: “This gives us a clear line for future development work for this three-year period. We’re very excited about the future of R&D.”

The full details of which technical programmes will be advanced and what their budget allocations will be had yet to be announced as this magazine went to press.

The strategy also contains two information transfer programmes aimed at communicating the current benefits of lead batteries to end users, such as car manufacturers and energy storage specifiers.

Among other things, the automotive programme will involve analysing and communicating the results of previous demonstration programmes to car manufacturers.

The other programme, which will focus on energy storage, will involve documenting the technical parameters that demonstrate the superior performance that lead batteries can bring to renewable energy storage and utilities applications.

“A priority for ALABC is to ensure that end user specifiers for utilities, renewable energy storage and domestic users are aware that current lead batteries are already providing an excellent option,” says Alistair Davidson, director for products and sustainability at the ILA.

The new programme has already raised close to $3 million of investment for the next three years. The research is called “pre-competitive”, which means that its findings are open to all of the ALABC’s 72 members.