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Lead-acid batteries: How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

I usually skip past the prognostications and predictions of pundits and columnists. Most don’t really know what they are talking about, have a vested interest in the future they predict, have a political or personal agenda, and—let's be honest here—the future is very hard to predict: most trends are notoriously fickle and hard to see. (You can make your own list of totally failed predictions, of course.) I've even seen market forecasts for some types of ICs for 2020—sorry, don’t think so.

But still, there are times when I at least stop, read, and think about what someone has to say, especially if their points seem somewhat coherent and multifaceted. This was the case for a recent column in Machine Design , “Death knell for lead-acid batteries” by Dr. Peter Harrop of IDTechEx, a company which consults on EVs, among other things.

Dr. Harrop makes a strong case that the venerable lead-acid battery we all know and use faces serious threats, due to a combination of factors:

•increasing use of start-stop operation in vehicles, a duty cycle which is not compatible with lead-acid batteries; advances in electric and hybrid electric vehicles (EVs and HEVs);

•increased use of fuel cells and lithium-based batteries for industrial uses such as forklifts;

•increase in popularity of e-bikes and electric scooters, which perform poorly with lead-acid cells;

• increased pollution law enforcement, especially in China;

•dropping cost curves for lithium-ion batteries;

•increasing use of supercapacitors.

All this seems fairly plausible , yet I can't help but wonder: is the lead-acid battery really on an inevitable, firm downward trajectory, as he forecasts? Despite its age in technical years, it is an inexpensive, well-understood, fully manageable power source. Sure, it's not “optimum” for all applications, but no technology ever is, with very rare exceptions.

Plus, lead-acid batteries are cheap—always a big plus. As for environmental issues, they may cause problems at the front end, but they are also very compatible with recycling efforts and thus eventual re-use as, yes, new batteries. Further, their form factors are much more standardized than batteries using other chemistries—at least thus far—and that's a plus for many applications, as well.

Maybe Dr. Harrop is right,or  maybe he's wrong as to timing but not the end result, or maybe he's wrong altogether, and lead-acid batteries will happily co-exist with other chemistries in the decades ahead. It wouldn't be the first time that a technology that was supposed to die out managed to survive nicely alongside newer, better, improved approaches (again, you can make your own list here).

What do you think is the future for lead-acid batteries five years out? How about ten and even twenty years from now?  ?

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