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.

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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