The Evolution of Industrial Batteries

Evolution Of Industrial Batteries

Battery Solutions for a Diverse Marketplace

The industrial battery sector is experiencing a paradigm shift towards customisation and the application- rather than chemistry- specific selection of batteries. Kim Nikitin, the Chief Operating Officer of Celltech Group, sheds light on the importance of this evolution, highlighting the expanding array of battery options now available to OEM manufacturers. “Fifteen years ago, you had only a few cell types to choose from in lithium batteries,” Nikitin notes, “you had to build the application around the battery and compromise in desired properties”, pointing out the contrast with today’s scenario where the suitability of a battery to its intended application is paramount. This transition from a limited selection to a broad spectrum of options signifies a significant advancement in the industry, enabling more precise matching of batteries to the unique needs of various applications.

The Rise of Lithium and Beyond

Lithium-based technologies, nickel-metal hydride and good old lead-acid batteries still dominate the battery market. Recent trends indicate a move towards specialised versions of these chemistries engineered for specific applications. Nikitin elaborates on the significance of this shift, explaining that different applications—ranging from medical to non-road vehicles—require batteries with distinct properties such as portability, longevity, energy density, and resilience to temperature extremes. The ability to choose the right chemistry for each application underscores the nuanced approach needed in today’s diverse industrial landscape.

Shifting Focus to Application-Driven Selection

“Everyone in the nineties talked about selecting their computers based on the CPUs in them. These days, people choose computers based on their intended uses: a business person who travels frequently may choose a lightweight laptop, while a gamer may want a desktop computer with powerful graphics. Computer technology is becoming less important than its features.” Drawing an analogy to the evolution of computer technology, Nikitin illustrates a similar trend in battery selection. “The battery chemistry debate is moving towards the features needed,” he observes, suggesting that the industry is transitioning from a chemistry-first to an application-first approach. This evolution enables designers and manufacturers to prioritise the operational requirements of the end application, such as power, weight, and environmental resilience, over the battery chemistry.

Case Studies in Application-Specific Battery Use

Nikitin provides compelling examples to illustrate the application-driven selection process. In the realm of EVs (electric vehicles), manufacturers might prioritise energy density and weight reduction to enhance performance and range but be ready to compromise on the number of charging cycles, as even with just 700 cycles, the car can be used for several years. Conversely, in industrial machinery that operates 24/7, the focus shifts to having thousands of charging cycles, as a thousand is easily used up in a year. This might mean compromising weight and energy density, but this can be accepted in heavy machinery.

When selecting batteries for EVs or industrial working machinery, the properties needed determine the type of battery chosen, not the chemistry.

Nikitin gives another example of lighting fixtures for emergency exits. The emergency light must remain on long after the building’s electricity has been cut off. Lead-acid batteries were originally used as a backup power source. The lead-acid batteries were fitted with fire-resistant cabling. About ten years ago, these were replaced with lithium batteries, which were more expensive (€/kWh) than lead-acid batteries. Still, installing lithium batteries directly into the light was possible, eliminating the need for costly fire-resistant cabling. A few years later, lithium batteries, in turn, were replaced with nickel-metal hydride batteries, whose properties had evolved so that they had sufficient energy density and operating temperature. For the emergency lights company, that has made customer deliveries easier, as nickel-metal hydride batteries don’t have as strict transportation regulations as lithium batteries.

From this example, it is plain to see that as battery technology evolves, the optimal chemistry for the given application might change.

The Future of Battery Technology and Selection

Looking ahead, Nikitin envisions a continued evolution towards even greater customisation and specificity in battery selection. Advances in battery technology, including the development of new chemistries and the refinement of existing ones, promise to expand the possibilities for application-specific solutions. The development of battery chemistries requires expertise, and it is important to understand that there can be huge differences between the quality and properties of two cells of the same chemistry.

The move towards a feature-driven selection process is expected to accelerate, enabling even more nuanced and effective matching of battery technologies to the diverse and evolving needs of the industrial sector.

A New Era of Customised Battery Solutions

The industrial battery market is moving confidently into a new era that emphasises application-specific needs and the compatibility of battery chemistries with those needs. “We are here to help you choose the right battery for your application”, says Nikitin. “We have over a hundred R&D engineers specialised in different battery technologies and components to support your choice. It can no longer be expected that one person knows all about batteries. In addition, we have long-lasting partnerships with some of the leading cell providers who also have experienced R&D teams working on developing their chemistries.”

The focus on customising battery solutions for particular applications is expected to change the market as it develops further. It provides previously unheard-of flexibility and efficiency in powering the wide range of industrial equipment and devices that support modern business needs.

This article is the first in series of three articles based on Kim Nikitin’s interview. The following articles will delve into the intricacies of battery technologies, focusing on aspects of safety and sustainability, providing a rounded view of the industrial battery market’s current and future landscape.