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Health, Science & Tech

New Castle Company Working To Make An Old Battery Technology New Again

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA


The lead acid battery, invented in the mid-1800s, has been the technology of choice when it comes to starting cars for decades. Though small advances over the years have made car batteries more reliable, lead acid batteries are still essentially the same.

Common 12-volt lead acid batteries are great to start a car, but attempts by car makers to boost mileage are making it harder for the batteries to keep up with new demands. Some manufacturers are making cars that automatically turn off their engines at stop lights. But when the engine stops, it puts the strain on the battery to run the the lights, radio and other electronic amenities in the car knows as the "hotel load."

“The challenge with the traditional lead acid battery is that the battery never gets a chance to fully recharge and it ends up operating in this partial state of charge,” said Axion Power Vice President of Engineering Jack Shindle. 

New Castle-based Axion Power is working to revolutionize lead acid batteries.

Lead acid batteries are made up of a series of negatively and positively charged lead plates. When a lead acid battery operates on a partial charge, Shindle said that can cause a chemical reaction on the negative plates, which causes them to "sulfate." When that happens, a white fuzzy material starts to form on the battery and it can no longer provide the power it once could. Cars with start-stop technology sense that the battery is dying and will prevent the engine from shutting off, causing the fuel economy to drop.

Axion Power has a solution for that. Instead of a negative lead plate, it uses an activated carbon plate which helps the battery better perform with a partial charge. It’s the same size and shape as the traditional lead plates, making it an easy replacement, Axion Power CEO Richard Bogan said.

“It’s a drop-in technology for wherever in the world there is manufacturing for lead acid batteries,” Bogan said. “The lithium guys have to spend billions producing, like, the Gigafactory, for instance.”

Tesla is spending millions of dollars to build a lithium ion battery plant in Nevada, called the Gigafactory. Lithium-ion batteries are traditionally the small, lightweight batteries commonly used in electronics like cell phones and laptops. But the Gigafactory is expected to house enough energy to provide electricity to thousands of households or charge as many as 1,000 electric cars

Prashant Kumta, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, has been advancing lithium-ion technology since 1994 and can see both the benefits and detractions of lithium systems.

“Lithium is expensive. Lithium is very reactive. Lithium is very sensitive, air sensitive, moisture sensitive, explosive,” Kumta said, with a laugh. “The good thing about lithium is that it’s very light. Next to hydrogen it’s the lightest element.”

Credit Axion Power
Axion Power runs a small facility to make the carbon plates that can drop into a standard lead acid battery manufacturing line

Axion Power knows its battery is far too heavy to run electric cars but it has recently entered into an agreement with a Chinese company to test the battery in cars with stop-start technology. And researchers in Brussels are also putting the Axion batteries to the test.

Axion is also looking at putting its technology to work in solar lighting applications where batteries never reach a full change in the winter months.

But don’t expect Axion to start large-scale manufacturing any time soon, Bogan said.

“Being able to licenses our product, that’s the direction we are going," Bogan said. "We will become much more of a royalty streaming company, we’re selling the secret sauce, if you will."

In this week's Tech Headlines:

  • Pennsylvania officials are hoping to better manage the flow of traffic in the commonwealth by gathering into one data base information regarding 8,700 traffic signals on state routes. Prior to the creation of the new web application, known as the Traffic Signals Asset Management System, the information was not easy to manage. It was scattered among paper records at several state offices. The system is available to municipalities, planning partners and contractors or consultants working on their behalf.
  • The ocean's vast and endless movement packs the power to meet a quarter of America's energy needs according to researchers, but wave energy technology lags well behind wind and solar power. To help boost research, the Navy this week began testing wave energy devices in the waters off Hawaii. The project consists of two buoys that generate electricity from the up-and-down and side-to-side movement of the ocean. Some of the modest amount of electricity generated is being fed into Oahu's power grid. Experts say it is the first wave-produced electricity to go online in the U.S.