Nickel Batteries keep getting kicked out of opportunities by Lithium Ion! Do they have a chance to succeed?
The sintered nickel cathode that has been around now for over 50 years has been the positive powerhouse of a string of Nickel based batteries for many years. Coupled with a variety of anodes, including Cadmium, Iron, Zinc, Hydrogen and Metal Hydride, this cathode has never had to take a breath in effort let alone break a sweat. The cycle life of this most robust of cathodes is reputedly higher than one hundred thousand and it is always the anode that is so very limiting. In the early 1990’s the Foam substrate came along as an alternative to the sintered plaque and while lower in cycle life was able to quickly boast higher Energy densities.
Starting with the invention by Jungner, in 1899, and commercialized initially as a pocket design, the Nickel Cadmium cell went on to dominate the small cell rechargeable space for many decades until increasing environmental legislation, because of its toxicity, plus the availability of better alternatives began to limit its uses. One of the alternatives to the Cadmium negative was the metal hydride negative, invented by Stanford Ovchinsky, in the 1970’s, and for a few years it looked like the metal hydride anode was going to further the Nickel battery dynasty. Following the PC desktop, “luggables”, of the mid 1980’s, Nickel metal hydride was set to be the battery of choice, or so it was thought for the portable computing revolution that was obviously coming. 4/3A size cells for computers and thin chewing gum stick sizes for cellular were set to win. That was, until Sony came a long and with their introduction of the 18650 cell, that had no linkage at all with the cylindrical sizes that had been established. Folks had been playing with Lithium Ion for a while but Sony brought to the technology two things that hitherto had not been in the mix. An established coating business for audio and video tape for which the death tolls could already be heard, as digital media started its run and secondly, “no fear”. Fear is a funny thing because it can only be born out of ignorance or knowledge. In this case ignorance! Sony was not a battery company and therefore they had not suffered the many experiences that any new technology will always experience and always leads to procedures, specifications and regulations that for sure protect but also slow down.
Device hunger for Volumetric and Gravimetric Energy Density did the rest and for the Portable computing category, as they say, “the rest is history”. Nickel metal Hydride had opted for the higher energy foam substrate rather than the sintered positive and as Lithium Ion captured the energy hungry and weight computing market, Nickel Metal Hydride went after its NiCd cousin’s dominance of the cordless power tool market along with many other Niche Energy Storage markets where Lithium Ion’s weight and space advantages were less important or its power capability insufficient. For a while peace reigned but as the new millennium began the invention of a more powerful cathode for Lithium Ion was already churning the pot again and foretelling of change. In so many ways A123, founded in 2001 by Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, Dr. Bart Riley, and Ric Fulop., was the perfect battery company launch. A123 had a higher power product than previous Lithium Ion offerings and they targeted a market that would appreciate this characteristic and pay for it. Once again then Nickel Metal Hydride was pushed out of the way and Lithium Ion today in power tools and gardening equipment is becoming ubiquitous. Also today, NiMH’s experience in portable computing and power tools is being repeated in HEVs. The Toyota Prius had been synonymous with the HEV and for a decade or more after its launch in 1995 the Prius was the posterchild of everything Vehicular Green! In 2010, just seven (7) years ago Toyota was supporting NiMH, just like a political party might support a struggling politician but in 2016 there was no longer any such pretense or denial. Lithium Ion is now the battery of choice and preference for the HEV versus NiMH going forward.
I probably know more about the Zinc negative electrode than any other battery electrode. It is what I started on back in 1982 and what I learnt back then has become part of my DNA, an indelible fingerprint, a part of who I am. Zinc is a great electrode. It has good current carrying characteristics, it is relatively stable and it is very inexpensive. It couples with Manganese dioxide perfectly to make an excellent primary battery, alkaline managense, and can be coupled with the Nickel Oxy Hydroxide positive to make a very serviceable rechargeable battery, as long as high cycle life is not very important. Early on it was rare to have a credible Nickel Zinc battery that could deliver 100 cycles but the shape change problems that largely caused this limitation have been significantly reduced and over 1000 cycles can now be consistently delivered. Despite improvements, Nickel Zinc has yet to demonstrate it can match Lithium NMC or Iron Phosphate and in recent years has started to be eclipsed by its Nickel Iron cousin that has come out of the gate after 100 years in the background claiming thousands and thousands of cycles. This chemistry, with its Iron negative, essentially leverages the power of rust to deliver energy. During discharge the Iron is converted to Iron oxides and during charge these are reduced back to Iron. Iron is the least expensive metal available and is produced every year in over 50 countries in total quantities of over a billion tons. Leveraging the power of rust this battery may have an interesting future.
The next great Energy Storage market, that is set to run parallel to any EV revolution, is the Off Grid and Clean Energy Market with all its nuances. Nickel Iron in many regards is the perfect solution offering some staggering performance attributes including over ten thousand cycles, twenty plus years, Lead Acid entitlement costs and it is relatively environment and safety benign. Nickel Iron in its traditional format, and in new configurations is being pursued by a number of companies around the World and if some of its traditional shortcomings can be overcome, namely round trip efficiency (RTE) & the need for watering, it has a chance to carve a place for itself and put up a score for Nickel Batteries versus the Lead Acid and Lithium Ion incumbents. Yes, Lithium Ion is now an established incumbent and it will need a scrappy underdog, like Nickel Iron to undercut it, less it dominate! Nickel Iron, was developed and commercialized by Thomas Edison in the early 1900’s and despite being reduced to relative obscurity by Lead Acid it’s time to succeed may be here.
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