Frost & Sullivan selected Caterpillar spin-off Firefly Energy as the recipient of its 2006 Technology Innovation Award in the field of advanced lead acid battery technologies for developing an innovative graphite-foam lead-acid battery that could cause disruptive changes in the market. (Earlier post.)
The lead acid cell, a technology born in the 1850s, is reliable, safe and inexpensive. It can also handle large surges in current, which makes it attractive to the world’s automobile manufacturers. However, the lead acid cell realizes little of its theoretical power density and has a relatively short battery life.
While somewhat newer battery technologies like Lithium Ion and Nickel Metal Hydride offer alternatives to traditional lead acid cells, they have their own set of issues including higher costs. Even though these advanced batteries have certain features that improve upon the traditional lead acid cell, they cannot match all its features and consequently, innovators such as Firefly Energy believe they can improve the lead acid cell to match lithium ion and the nickel metal hydrides.—Sivam Sabesan, Frost & Sullivan Research Analyst
Firefly substitutes the positive and negative lead metal grids in a conventional battery with carbon-graphite foam to which the chemically active material—in the form of a paste or slurry has been applied—increasing the surface area and enhancing the chemistry tacking place.
The result is a battery that can rival the advanced chemistries in performance, take advantage of an existing manufacturing base and address environmental concerns through the removal of one-half to two-thirds of the lead content.
Replacing the plates with carbon foam enables longer battery life while enhancing the battery’s desirable characteristics, particularly in terms of fast discharge and recharge conditions. Additionally, by replacing most of the lead with a much lighter material, Firefly has drastically lowered the specific weight of the battery, which can help by either increasing output from the same weight or in creating a smaller package but with normal power output.
Apart from [commercial and military markets], there are markets for hybrid and electric vehicles that also require high performance batteries. And while Firefly is initially looking to focus on select commercial and military markets, it is reasonable to expect that this novel technology will find equally viable markets elsewhere if the company should choose to enter them, given that the overall size of the worldwide lead-acid market is over $16 billion per year in sales.—Sivam Sabesan