Lead-acid battery going strong despite emergence of new technologies

Lead-acid battery. [iStockphoto]

In the ever-evolving world of energy storage the humble lead-acid battery has remained a stalwart withstanding the tests of time.

Inexpensive and dependable, lead acid batteries have been around for more than 100 years, including being used in the early versions of electric vehicles back in the 1890s.

It offers the high current needed to start an internal combustion engine, and the entire electric subsystem of such a vehicle has been designed to be powered by the 12V battery when the engine is turned off.

As the auto industry began electrification in the late 1990s with hybrid or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, a lead-acid battery is still needed because there is still a gasoline engine to be started.

Even as newer technologies emerge, the reliability and affordability of lead-acid batteries make them a popular choice. Approximately 50 per cent of worldwide rechargeable energy storage utilises lead.

The journey of the lead acid battery began in 1859 when French physicist Gaston Plante dipped two sheets of pure lead inside a jar of sulphuric acid. His rudimentary prototype laid the foundation for the modern battery industry. Over the subsequent decades, tweaks, modifications, and optimisations saw the technology become the cornerstone of energy storage particularly in the automotive sphere.

Lead acid battery sales dominate energy storage today, with the global market valued at approximately USD45 billion in 2024. In Kenya, and the East African region there are over 15,000 people directly employed by the lead acid battery recycling and manufacturing sector producing approximately 2 million batteries every year. The region imports cars and batteries that when spent, become part of the recyclable resource that keeps the industry going.

Despite newer battery technologies vying for dominance, lead acid batteries have maintained their strong market position due to several intrinsic advantages.

Cost-effectiveness - lead acid batteries offer a favourable cost-per-watt-hour, making them an economical choice for applications where advanced features like ultra-lightweight or ultra-high energy density aren't necessary.

Reliability - their proven design ensures that, with proper maintenance, these batteries can be extremely reliable.

Recyclability - among all battery technologies, lead acid batteries boast the highest recycling rate. Almost 100 per cent of a lead acid battery is recyclable, and this eco-friendly aspect ensures they don't contribute significantly to the growing problem of electronic waste and pollution.

Mature infrastructure - having been around for almost 150 years, lead acid batteries have a mature manufacturing base and supply chain. This fully developed infrastructure means they are low-cost, readily available, and easily produced at scale.

Maintenance is also relatively easy. Sealed lead acid batteries don't even require the addition of water. These positive attributes have made lead acid batteries the desired choice in the automotive and back-up power industries.

When it comes to backup energy storage, reliability is paramount, and lead acid batteries have consistently proven their mettle in this regard. Their ability to deliver consistent power over extended periods makes them invaluable during power outages.

Furthermore, they possess a deep cycling capability, meaning they can be discharged and recharged repeatedly without significant degradation in performance. This cycling property is particularly beneficial in applications like renewable energy storage where energy input can be intermittent.

Additionally, lead acid batteries are scalable, allowing for the design of backup systems tailored to varying power needs.

Although research and development of lithium-ion battery technology has advanced considerably as EV mobility takes shape, we are yet to see how formidable and resilient it will be in comparison to the lead-acid battery technology.

-Prof Karanja is the Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Action and the chair of Natural Resources Forum