What's new in batteries?

1st of November 2012
What's new in batteries?

The battery industry is changing all the time and manufacturers are increasingly striving to come up with smaller, lighter products that can be recharged more quickly and that work more efficiently. Ann Laffeaty asks battery manufacturers about their latest products – and finds out what they feel the future holds for the industry.

It was an 18th century dead frog that helped give rise to the worldwide battery industry, now thought to be worth in the region of 38 billion euros. A 1780 Italian anatomist named Luigi Galvani observed that the legs of a frog he had just dissected would twitch when struck by a spark from an external source of electricity. He then created an electric circuit consisting of the frog's leg and two different metals, with each metal touching the frog's leg and also each other. The rest, as they say, is history.

Batteries have now become an essential power source for numerous types of machinery and equipment. In the cleaning industry they are essential because battery-powered machines can operate in environments where no sockets are readily available. The fact that they are cable-free also makes them more flexible and less of a tripping hazard than mains-powered alternatives.

But batteries have always had their share of disadvantages. Wet cell batteries need to be constantly kept topped up, for example, which makes them a high-maintenance option. Some batteries have a relatively short life between recharging periods, which can be costly from a productivity point of view. And the lead-acid content of some batteries make them an environmental concern once their useful life is over.

However the industry is developing all the time and modern breakthroughs include increased durability, lower maintenance and shorter recharging times. In fact the latest generation of batteries have become a viable, low-maintenance and environmentally-friendly alternative to other power sources.

Trojan offers deep-cycle flooded, AGM and gel batteries as well as a single-point watering system for its flooded line. The company’s latest product is a 12-AGM battery which is said to provide maintenance-free operation when used in floor scrubber machines.

Maintenance is key to maintaining flooded batteries, and for this reason single-point watering systems are gaining in popularity according to Trojan’s vice-president of marketing Elke Hirschman. “A multitude of challenges have an impact on today’s floor cleaning machine industry from reduced budgets and tight schedules to increasing environmental regulations,” she said. “Equipment inefficiencies due to the failure of watering deep-cycle flooded batteries shouldn’t be one of those challenges.”

Trojan’s HydroLink watering system is said to be capable of filling a complete set of batteries in less than 30 seconds. It features a built-in water-level indicator to provide an electrolyte level reading, plus a valve shut-off feature that automatically stems the flow of water to eliminate any potential of overflow or acid splash caused by overfilling.

“HydroLink is also equipped with dual flame arrestors which are not standard on many other watering systems,” said Hirschman. “The internal flame arrestors prevent internal sparks from passing through the watering system to neighbouring cells, while the external flame arrestor prevents external sparks from entering the battery.”

Room for both

According to Hirschman there is plenty of room on the market for both sealed and flooded batteries. “A customer’s decision on whether to choose flooded or sealed batteries tends to be based on their budget, or environmental regulations at the location in question,” she says.  “Flooded batteries cost less and have a longer life cycle, while sealed AGM or gel batteries are maintenance-free but have a higher price.  A customer’s preference would really depend on one of these two requirements.”

She claims that the use of sealed technology is increasing in those industries regulated by the government such as educational institutions, airports and hospitals. “However in non-regulated industries where price and performance are key purchasing factors, deep-cycle flooded battery technology that use watering systems are becoming popular,” she says. “These industries prefer to remain with flooded technology to gain the best value-to-performance ratio.”

Trojan is currently exploring the development of lithium batteries for the floor machine marketplace. The company has partnered with Palladium Energy in a bid to expand its battery offering to meet evolving customer demands.

Optima Batteries is also planning to introduce lithium ion batteries over the next few years, says business development manager Hans de Jong. “We are already using lithium ion in the automotive industry and are working on developing it for the cleaning industry as well,” he said.

Optima’s deep cycle AGM batteries are currently the company’s most advanced product, he says. “They are three or four times better than a starter AGM battery because they can handle more discharges than charges.”

Optima AGM batteries use Spiralcell Technology which is said to offer lower internal resistance than a standard AGM battery. “A battery with a low internal resistance is more cost-effective because it gives you a longer run-time than a gel battery can deliver,” says de Jong.

He claims the Optima Yellow Top 4.2 has an internal resistance of 2.8 which is three times lower than that of a similar-sized gel battery. “You would need to recharge a gel battery for long run-times and it would be less effective at delivering power,” said de Jong. “Our battery could also recharge in half the time depending on the current.”

Optima batteries are said to be vibration-resistant and spill-proof, and they also have a greater plate area for superior starting power. They are claimed to offer faster recharge plus higher voltage characteristics during discharge. “With most cleaning machines the batteries are discharged every day, five days a week,” says de Jong. “A battery with more cycles allows you to reduce the ownership cost of the machine.”

Battery Supplies offers a full range of batteries including lead, gel and AGM products. According to general manager Alexander de Soete this makes the company particularly customer-focused and less inclined to promote one kind of battery over another.

Customer needs considered

“We look at the customer’s specific needs and find out the purpose of the battery, type of machine the customer is using and the consumption of the machine,” he said. “We then make an offer according to the needs of the customer.”

Like the other two battery companies mentioned, Battery Supplies has recently been exploring lithium technology. Lithium is not such a common raw material as lead which means the batteries are expensive to produce. There are also some explosion risks associated with lithium ion batteries that need to be controlled with specific software.

These drawbacks have been curbing the development of lithium-ion batteries for the cleaning market for some time. However this is all about to change according to de Soete. His company has just received its first orders of lithium-ion batteries from contract cleaners and suppliers of cleaning machinery.

“Until recently the battery market has been quite traditional and consisted of wet batteries, gel batteries and AGM batteries,” he says. “Everyone has been searching for a solution that is maintenance-free, has a long life and comes at an acceptable price.

“Lithium-ion batteries fulfil two of these criteria – but the price is still quite high. I am sure this will come down in the future but in the meantime, there are always those customers who are prepared to pay to test out new technologies.”

According to de Soete lithium ion batteries offer a number of advantages over traditional batteries. “For one thing they are lightweight, which means the cleaning machines are much lighter to carry,” he said. “They are also completely maintenance free and offer double the life cycle of a lead acid battery and between three and five times the life of an AGM or gel battery.”

But what of the explosion risks? “Lithium-ion batteries have developed a great deal over recent years and the explosion danger is now almost zero,” he says. “Every element is controlled by a battery management system during charging and use. This is an electronic control system that uses a data logger to control all the different parameters of the element.”

And he adds that the company is currently working on developments that will combine the maintenance-free benefits of lithium-ion batteries with the price advantages of traditional batteries. “This development is too new to talk about any further, but we hope to have the test results back by early next year,” he said.


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