The history of the lead acid battery, from the early pioneering days of Sinstede and Planté in the 1850s, to the simple arrangement of lead and sulphuric acid that has provided the power source for the entire world can be termed only as extraordinary.
Equally extraordinary is how little has changed over the past 150 years. For example, Otto Jache may have invented the gel valve regulated lead acid battery in the late 1950s but it was only in the 1970s that real development of the product began and almost another 10 years till the arrival of AGM technology was deployed. So the last big thing technologically — broadly speaking anyway — is already a generation old.
The mentality “it ain't broke, so don't fix it” used to look as if it was branded into the DNA of the industry. The product worked, the search was almost invariably on providing a better, more commercial product — witness the arrival of the polypropylene SLI battery in the mid-1960s and later maintenance free batteries — and particularly focused on battery manufacture.
The fundamental chemistry of the battery, however, remained unchallenged and unchanged. For part of these reasons, lead acid batteries came to be seen as a rust belt technology — and the fact that they had barely changed for a century only re-inforced the point. And as technology in almost every other industry globally progressed in leaps and bounds, the world became infatuated with what they saw as the future for batteries: products based around rare metals such as nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries.
They would be lighter, cheaper and more efficient we were told. Lead acid has been around for over100 years and is seen by many as an old technology not capable of solving today's new needs. For many applications, this was true. Nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries are well suited to portable electronic equipment such as mobile phones, laptop computers and small power tools, and this is unlikely to change.
They are light and produce a steady current over a long period of time. But for applications that require larger amounts of power and bigger storage capacities, the efficiency and, historically, the safety of these products, is questionable.
There are question marks over the future availability and cost of the raw commodities required to make them and their recycling rates are far lower than lead acid batteries. And that is why the world is still heavily reliant on lead acid batteries. The new and appealing technologies have still failed to deliver a mass produced product for some of the biggest battery users such as our vehicles. But lead acid batteries have been doing both catch-up and re-affirming their status as still (almost) the only game in town worth playing.