Keeping your car batteries alive.

Lithium-battery cost and performance has improved so much that no one uses Ni-Cad or metal hydride batteries any more. These are the choice for tools, phones, and computers, while lead acid batteries are used for car starting and emergency lights. I thought I’d write about the care and trade-offs of these two remaining options.

As things currently stand, you can buy a 12 V, lead-acid car battery with 40 Amp-h capacity for about $95. This suggests a cost of about $200/ kWh. The price rises to $400/kWh if you only discharge half way (good practice). This is cheaper than the per-power cost of lithium batteries, about $500/ kWh or $1000/ kWh if you only discharge half-way (good practice), but people pick lithium because (1) it’s lighter, and (2) it’s generally longer lasting. Lithium generally lasts about 2000 half-discharge cycles vs 500 for lead-acid.

On the basis of cost per cycle, lead acid batteries would have been replaced completely except that they are more tolerant of cold and heat, and they easily output the 400-800 Amps needed to start a car. Lithium batteries have problems at these currents, especially when it’s hot or cold. Lithium batteries deteriorate fast in the heat too (over 40°C, 105°F), and you can not charge a lithium car battery at more than 3-4 Amps at temperatures below about 0°C, 32°F. At higher currents, a coat of lithium metal forms on the anode. This lithium can react with water: 2Li + H2O –> Li2O + H2, or it can form dendrites that puncture the cell separators leading to fire and explosion. If you charge a lead acid battery too fast some hydrogen can form, but that’s much less of a problem. If you are worried about hydrogen, we sell hydrogen getters and catalysts that remove it. Here’s a description of the mechanisms.

The best thing you can do to keep a lead-acid battery alive is to keep it near-fully charged. This can be done by taking long drives, by idling the car (warming it up), or by use of an external trickle charger. I recommend a trickle charger in the winter because it’s non-polluting. A lead-acid battery that’s kept at near full charge will give you enough charge for 3000 to 5000 starts. If you let the battery completely discharge, you get only 50 or so deep cycles or 1000 starts. But beware: full discharge can creep up on you. A new car battery will hold 40 Ampere-hours of current, or 65,000 Ampere-seconds if you half discharge. Starting the car will take 5 seconds of 600 Amps, using 3000 Amp-s or about 5% of the battery’s juice. The battery will recharge as you drive, but not that fast. You’ll have to drive for at least 500 seconds (8 minutes) to recharge from the energy used in starting. But in the winter it is common that your drive will be shorter, and that a lot of your alternator power will be sent to the defrosters, lights, and seat heaters. As a result, your lead-acid battery will not totally charge, even on a 10 minute drive. With every week of short trips, the battery will drain a little, and sooner or later, you’ll find your battery is dead. Beware and recharge, ideally before 50% discharge

A little chemistry will help explain why full discharging is bad for battery life (for a different version see Wikipedia). For the first half discharge of a lead-acid battery, the reaction Is:

Pb + 2PbO2 + 2H2SO4  –> PbSO4 + Pb2O2SO4 + 2H2O.

This reaction involves 2 electrons and has a -∆G° of >394 kJ, suggesting a reversible voltage more than 2.04 V per cell with voltage decreasing as H2SO4 is used up. Any discharge forms PbSO4 on the positive plate (the lead anode) and converts lead oxide on the cathode (the negative plate) to Pb2O2SO4. Discharging to more than 50% involves this reaction converting the Pb2O2SO4 on the cathode to PbSO4.

Pb + Pb2O2SO4 + 2H2SO4  –> 2PbSO4 + 2H2O.

This also involves two electrons, but -∆G < 394 kJ, and voltage is less than 2.04 V. Not only is the voltage less, the maximum current is less. As it happens Pb2O2SO4 is amorphous, adherent, and conductive, while PbSO4 is crystalline, not that adherent, and not-so conductive. Operating at more than 50% results in less voltage, increased internal resistance, decreased H2SO4 concentrations, and lead sulfate flaking off the electrode. Even letting a battery sit at low voltage contributes to PbSO4 flaking off. If the weather is cold enough, the low concentration H2SO4 freezes and the battery case cracks. My advice: Get out your battery charger and top up your battery. Don’t worry about overcharging; your battery charger will sense when the charge is complete. A lead-acid battery operated at near full charge, between 67 and 100% will provide 1500 cycles, about as many as lithium. 

Trickle charging my wife's car. Good for battery life. At 6 Amps, expect this to take 3-6 hours.

Trickle charging my wife’s car: good for battery life. At 6 Amps, expect a full charge to take 6 hours or more. You might want to recharge the battery in your emergency lights too. 

Lithium batteries are the choice for tools and electric vehicles, but the chemistry is different. For longest life with lithium batteries, they should not be charged fully. If you change fully they deteriorate and self-discharge, especially when warm (100°F, 40°C). If you operate at 20°C between 75% and 25% charge, a lithium-ion battery will last 2000 cycles; at 100% to 0%, expect only 200 cycles or so.

Tesla cars use lithium batteries of a special type, lithium cobalt. Such batteries have been known to explode, but and Tesla adds sophisticated electronics and cooling systems to prevent this. The Chevy Volt and Bolt use lithium batteries too, but they are less energy-dense. In either case, assuming $1000/kWh and a 2000 cycle life, the battery cost of an EV is about 50¢/kWh-cycle. Add to this the cost of electricity, 15¢/kWh including the over-potential needed to charge, and I find a total cost of operation of 65¢/kWh. EVs get about 3 miles per kWh, suggesting an energy cost of about 22¢/mile. By comparison, a 23 mpg car that uses gasoline at $2.80 / gal, the energy cost is 12¢/mile, about half that of the EVs. For now, I stick to gasoline for normal driving, and for long trips, suggest buses, trains, and flying.

Robert Buxbaum, January 4, 2018.

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