When the French scientist, Gaston Plante, invented the lead battery in 1859, he could not have envisioned the critical role his creation would play today in transportation, communication, electric utilities and as emergency backup systems. Without them, 21st century life would not be possible.
The development of more and more battery-powered devices and applications has fueled demand for new and different battery chemistries. Researchers have been looking for a chemistry that is powerful, long-lived, safe, inexpensive, lightweight and recyclable.
Following is a brief summary of lead and alternate battery chemistries and their advantages and disadvantages.
This chemistry has been proven over more than 140 years. Batteries of all shapes and sizes, available in sealed and maintenance-free products, are mass-produced today. In their price range, lead batteries provide the best value for power and energy per kilowatt-hour, have the longest life cycle and a large environmental advantage in that they are recycled at an extraordinarily high rate. (97% of the lead is recycled and reused in new batteries.) No other chemistry can touch the infrastructure that exists for collecting, transporting and recycling lead batteries.
Lead is heavier compared to some alternative elements used in other technologies; however, certain efficiencies in current conductors and other advances continue to improve on the power density of a lead battery's design.
It has a high specific energy (the number of hours of operation for a given weight) making it a huge success for mobile applications such as phones and notebook computers.
More expensive than lead. The cost differential is not as apparent with small batteries for phones and computers, and owners of these devices may not realize that they are paying much more per stored kilowatt hour than other chemistries. However, because automotive batteries are larger, the cost becomes more significant. In addition, currently there is no established system for recycling large lithium-ion batteries. Circuit protection is required to keep current and temperature within safe levels.
Lithium Iron Phosphate
Addresses the safety concern of lithium-ion but at a lower energy density level.
This chemistry is reliable, can operate in a range of temperatures, tolerates abuse well and performs well after long periods of storage
Disadvantages:: The metals in the battery are 25 times more expensive than lead. Nickel has been identified as a carcinogen. The self-discharge rate is high. No significant recycling capability exists.
Advantages: It is reliable and lightweight and less prone to memory effect. In hybrid vehicles, these batteries have equal to 100,000 miles. This chemistry is reliable, can operate in a range of temperatures, tolerates abuse well and performs well after long periods of storage.
Disadvantages: The metals in the battery are 25 times more expensive than lead. Nickel has been identified as a carcinogen. The self-discharge rate is high. No significant recycling capability exists
Note: The Advanced Lead Battery Consortium (ALABC) has helped to develop and test an advanced lead battery powered system that operates at the partial state of charge demands necessary for a hybrid vehicle and recently equipped a Honda Insight with this system. Advanced lead batteries will challenge the more expensive nickel metal hydride system in hybrid vehicles today.
Advantages: This chemistry has good energy density, good operating temperature range and performs reasonably well after long periods of storage.
Disadvantages: It is expensive and its life cycle, while improved during the past few years, is still merely adequate. Nickel-metal hydride is often a stronger choice.
Advantages: This chemistry is about as efficient as lead, but has three to four times more specific energy (the number of hours of operation for a given weight). Advantage only for stationary use.
Disadvantages: Twenty seven years of research has yielded only one commercial application – load leveling by electric utilities in Japan. Energy density per unit weight for mobile applications suffers due to material needed to keep system warm and protect it against crashes.
Advantages: This is a mechanically rechargeable primary battery system with a capacity equal to 15-20 cycles on a lead system (a cycle refers to a discharge and a charge).
Disadvantages: This chemistry cannot be cycled in the tradition sense. Its components must be replaced frequently; water must be added and sludge must be removed. When combined with the expense of reprocessing aluminum, the system is nowhere near commercialization.