Other Batteries

A reader wants to know if I have any knowledge of Nickel-Iron or NiFe batteries. See? I read the comments. Eventually. I just don’t let them post because not everybody is nice or on topic. Anyway, let’s just say I’d love to have a trailer load of NiFe batteries, aka Edison batteries.

Thomas Edison wanted to build electric cars. Seems like every body does, today, but about a century ago things were kind of up in the air as to how it would all go. Steam, gasoline and electric started on an even footing. Range and complexity were big factors and gas eventually won. Edison, though, was looking for a battery that could take a lot of abuse, was lightweight, would last a long time and not rot out the car frame. Any golf car owner can tell you about frame rust from lead-acid batteries.

www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

While electric cars had to wait a century before coming practical, Edison’s were a hit in stationary applications, like railroad signals, wind-electric home power and in forklift trucks. When Exide was bought out, NiFe or Edison batteries were discontinued because they almost never failed. If you have a battery company, do you want to make the best product or do you want to sell lots of product? They made their choice.

The story is told of an old man who went around buying up his neighbors’ batteries when the Rural Electrification Administration brought lines out in the countryside. It didn’t matter if they were old and dried out, he’d wash them out and refill with water and a little lye. No acid, no corrosion and they come back to life. There are still people using these batteries, many over 50 years old.

For the longest time, the only sources for new batteries were eastern Europe and China. There is now an American manufacturer.

What are some of the characteristics, good and bad? On the negative side, they use a lot of water. The railroads topped them with “Edison Oil” to slow down evaporation. They don’t retain a charge for long periods, but they are fine for a few days of cloudy weather. Can’t think of anything else.

On the positive side, they seemingly last forever. You restore them with water and a can of Red Devil Lye. They won’t corrode things, but you don’t want to get the lye on your hands when servicing. They aren’t heavy, as batteries go. They don’t seem to have a cycle limitation. You can run them down to stone cold dead or bone dry and they come back just fine. There is no desulphation or equalizing charge needed.

Sounds pretty good, right? To use them, you’ll need charge controllers that can be adjusted, and many are, but otherwise not much difference. From what I have seen, they are sold as cells rather than, say, a 24v battery. This would be perfect if they were cheap. Well, maybe they are. Last time I priced some, they were about the price of Lithiums. Lithium batteries have a high upfront cost, but they last a long time and have deeper cycles making them a better deal than lead acid batteries. The NiFe batteries appear to take it a step further, making them a long term bargain. The bad news is that Sun Electronics does not carry them.

–Neal
Header photo credit: Iron Edison

Other Batteries

A reader wants to know if I have any knowledge of Nickel-Iron or NiFe batteries. See? I read the comments. I just don’t let them post because not everybody is nice or on topic. Anyway, let’s just say I’d love to have a trailer load of NiFe batteries, aka Edison batteries.

Thomas Edison was a childhood hero of mine, until I learned what a jerk he was. Still, you have to be impressed by all the inventions he and his team cranked out. One of these inventions was the Edison battery. The late 1800s had all kinds of batteries, but the automobile was promising to be the next big thing and there just wasn’t a suitable battery on the market. (I still feel that way.) Edison teamed up with Detroit Electric to come up with a practical electric car.

The result was the Nickel-Iron (NFP) battery. I discovered the NFP back in the 70s, reading Michael Hackleman and other alt energy pioneers. There were stories of finding old NFP cells on abandoned farm installations, rinsing them out, refilling with water and dumping in some Red Devil Lye, with the batteries returning to life. I have heard stories of people gathering up old NFP forklift batteries or railway signal batteries and they were still fine after nearly 100 years. What’s not to love with a battery like that?

Here are some characteristics. The electrolyte is water and lye. No acid or toxic lead. It won’t burn holes in your pants. It won’t make your terminals corrode. They are relatively light weight. They pretty much last forever. Great, huh? On the other hand, they use a fair amount of water. (a special Edison oil was developed to minimize the evaporation) And there is a fair amount of self discharge, but not enough to worry you in a solar power system. The thing is, if you make batteries and a warehouse just keeps on replacing worn out fork trucks while using the same set of batteries, how’re you going to make money? So Exide quit making them.

For a while, eastern Europe is where you had to go for them. Then China. Then a company in the USA started selling refurbs and now Iron Edison makes and sells them in the USA. The USA batteries aren’t cheap. I would even question whether or not they are even cost effective, except that they last forever. If you are in your 20s, that could be a good deal. I am getting to the age where I don’t even buy my tomatoes a little green, so I am not sure I am ready to switch over.

They had the charging business figured out. Too bad Edison never got the idea for photovoltaic charging.

However, if I had unlimited play budget, how would I go with batteries? What’s the comparison?
In my own system, I think I would abandon lead-­acid and go with pocket plate Nickel Cadmium, Lithium Iron Phosphate or Nickel-Iron. NiCads got a bad rep with the kinds used in power tools. They would develop a memory a pretty soon would not hold a charge. Pocket plate NiCads don’t do that and are pretty tolerant of heavy charges and discharges. I don’t know where you can find them, except China. Importing from China is always interesting and educational.

You Have a Bunch of Chinese Battery Cells. Do They Work or Are They Full of Sawdust?

LiFePO4 or LFP batteries do not have the energy density of the Lithium Ion batteries used in cars, but they don’t burst into flames quite as easily as the LI batteries. They are smaller and lighter than lead batteries. Unlike lead acid batteries, which don’t like being discharged below 50%, you can repeatedly go down to 20% with LFP batteries, letting you use 80% of the power stashed away and still get perhaps 6000 cycles of use. Furthermore, they aren’t really very fussy about never getting fully recharged. My Zero Export Grid Tie (ZEGT) is a perfect application for LFP batteries. All is not skittles and beer, however. Lithium batteries of any flavor can be very fussy about discharging too much or overcharging. That’s why they come (or should) with a Battery Management System (BMS) to handle the details. Prices are coming down.

Then there is the NiFe. If you overcharge, you just have to add more water. You can discharge them to zero and leave them for 10 years and still bring them back to life. An axe might hurt them, but pretty much anything you do in normal operation won’t. They, like the NiCad and LFP batteries will require different settings on the charge controllers and some inverter/chargers.

Introducing the 1910 Prius Prime

These are all good choices for today. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear of some new battery chemistry coming out, but getting these things to market is slow. Solar, EV and utility use is really driving battery development. The holy grail of batteries will be cheap, fast charging, large capacity, well-mannered and long-lived. They’re working on it, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also not changing out my lead-acid batteries until I have squeezed out that last kilowatt-hour of the ones I have.
–Neal