Lead acid to lead the way to the promised land of energy storage for the grid
Terry Murphy explains how a new generation of expanders has made it possible to create batteries that allow a high degree of charge acceptance while at a partial state of charge — a game changer in the way that lead acid batteries will be deployed in the coming years.
Terry Murphy, chief executive of the Hammond Group, has a long association with the lead acid battery business — his background in the industry goes back to his college days when he worked at the Hammond Group, packing 50lb bags of lead oxide, during the summers to pay for tuition.
His first major job after graduation was working on the space shuttle main engines which brought him into indirect contact with lead batteries — but not as most of us at ELBC would recognize them. It was lead telluride — which used as a thermo-electric couple converts temperature differences into voltage, a system recently launched on the Mars Curiosity Rover, which is rolling on Mars today.
But if his first professional connections with lead and energy storage verge on the arcane, that’s not the case any longer. In October last year Murphy took over as president of the Hammond Group — a company that is very much at the cutting edge of the lead acid battery business.
What does prove fascinating, however, are the parallels Murphy makes between his far-off days with Rocketdyne a Californian company that built the propulsion and power systems for NASA — he spent 25+ years there — and the modern lead acid battery community.
NASA forged a technology that eventually changed the way that we look at space. Similarly too, advances in lead battery design, will change the world’s energy storage picture completely, he believes.
Hammond itself is in the process of repurposing one of its own facilities outside Chicago which will add some 50,000 square feet dedicated to R&D. Murphy believes that its research in expanders — he calls the arrival of its advanced expander line as a “complete gamechanger” — is just one step along a much more complex path for the firm.
“We’re going beyond highly engineered expanders,” he says. “Traditional expanders used to have three components to them but now they have six or more. But we’re looking at better grid metals, greater varieties of additives, new lead alloys, additive manufacturing techniques and new battery geometries.”
The ability to choose battery types will become increasingly evident. “Five years ago, if you wanted a battery, it was very much a commoditized product,” he says. “Nowadays, we’re ambitiously looking for an 80% increase in performance for 20% of the cost of a lithium ion battery.
“Products such as our advanced expander line, for example, opens up a new world of business of offering tailored solutions which, as we did years ago, looked at producing the best for the whole system and not just one part of it.”
Murphy believes that the lead acid battery industry is about to see a revolution in the products that it can offer and he believes that grid storage, which has highly specific needs beyond simple energy storage, such as load leveling or frequency regulation, will be a major beneficiary of the energy revolution that renewables will provide.
The latest IEA figures show, if hydro, is included that almost one electron in five is a green one and the trend is growing exponentially.
“The grids of the future are going to be based on renewable energy and our next generation of lead acid batteries will underpin it. UPS for telecom cell towers, peak shaving to reduce demand charges, electric fork lifts, e-bikes. The list goes on and choosing the right expander formulations — we’ve already generated some 100 different ones — means we can create batteries that allow a high degree of charge acceptance while at a partial state of charge. “That’s a game change for lead acid batteries.
“And most particularly at a price that is far lower than that of lithium or other battery chemistries.”
Like many in the lead acid community, Murphy is puzzled by the continued fascination with lithium as its rival but is hopeful that once end users understand the new chemistry they will being to re-evaluate the situation. “When I worked for Boeing Rocketdyne Energy Systems part of my remit was to look across the whole organization and see how could leverage aerospace into a cleaner and greener fashion.
“One underlying principle was a simple one — working out the total cost of ownership.
“This situation can’t last forever. I believe we’re already seeing a turnaround in automotive companies’ perceptions of non-lead batteries. We
should soon be seeing that in greater research and development work, particularly in partial state of charge which is where the greatest benefits can be found.
“Most importantly we can do so at a competitive price point. We are able, for example, to offer our advanced line of expanders at a range of prices — some of the carbon additives that go into the expander mix are very expensive — but battery manufacturers can tell us what they want the battery to do and we can work out some kind of middle ground in terms of balancing the cost with the performance.”
Part of the key to the future, Murphy believes is some kind of competitive/ collaborative mix as an industry standard.
“For the space shuttle to move ahead in the early years, we needed the whole aerospace industry — internationally and commercially — to participate. The challenges were too great for NASA alone.
“We’re in a similar situation with pioneering the next generation of lead acid batteries — and that’s why we belong to an organization like ALABC.”