Backroad Ramblings: Batteries of the Future

November 21, 2012
Jason Giacchino
Jason Giacchino
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

A freelancer and published novelist Jason is currently the editor in chief of Mountain Bike Tales digital magazine and holds a State University of New York degree in applied science with a minor in journalism. When not hunched over a computer monitor, he can be found playing outside in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York.

With the stock battery dead  we sampled a Lithium-Iron battery from Shorai for our 2012 KLR650 Project Bike.
Winters can be tough, especially on batteries,.

Looking to the Past for Batteries of the Future

I’ve got to be totally honest with you here: Batteries scare me. No not the risk of reversing the polarity and causing an explosion kind of scare but more of a generalized guilt-induced fear that comes from living in an area known for long cold winters. See these past few weeks have been what I affectionately call our winter transition period. This is to say the bulk of the slush, ice and snow hasn’t yet surfaced but there are odd atmospheric changes afoot. Night arrives shortly after what used to be afternoon a few weeks ago, the daytime hours are shaded by thick deep purple clouds moving on down from Canada and once that sun sets the air is frigid.

I imagine if I were a snowmobile guy, this would all be cause for celebration but alas I find myself in a sort of annual scramble attempting to decide what batteries to remove and trickle charge for the winter and which to leave in their respective battery boxes. In the perfect world, I would have a garage like something out of an old Frankenstein movie with cables snaking around bubbling vials of battery acid and a massive lightning rod on the roof to harness the 1.21 gigawatts required to… oh wait wrong movie.

Anyway not only is my current storage building nothing like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, it’s actually not a whole lot like a garage either. It’s a dirt floor pole barn that lacks electricity so if you’re not paying attention this means two things: I have to do all of my work by the light of day and no, there’s nowhere to hook up a trickle charger or seven even if I wanted to. Now I know what you’re thinking, why in the world would this guy really need seven chargers running? The answer, aside from trying to impress you, is of course the direct result of a world that is slowly but steadily doing away with backup starting systems.

Battery Tender Junior Charger
A battery tender will help keep batteries alive through the frigid winter months, provided your bike shack has juice.

At present there are two riding lawnmowers in said barn with electric start and no backups, one Polaris MXR450 with electric starting only, a Husqvarna TE511 with electric only, a Honda Nighthawk 250… eh, you get the idea! Come spring, while the rest of the neighborhood is romping up and down the back roads in effort blow the carbon out of their bikes’ exhaust canisters, my abode is filled with the sound of keyboard clacking and groaning as I order half a dozen new batteries that failed to survive old man winter’s obnoxiousness.

I bring all these things up not because I imagine you care about my struggles with these little boxes of acid but because we, as a society, are on the verge of revelation. In case you’ve been living in a cave these past few years, automotive (and more recently motorcycle) industry talk seems to center on the idea of moving away from internal combustion and to place even more responsibility on electrics. Assuming cars and bikes aren’t going to come equipped with their own 1) self contained hydroelectric generator, 2) small scale nuclear reactor or 3) lightning rod and flux capacitor, this means more batteries!

At present the type of batteries fueling these hybrids (and full electrics) are of the lithium ion variety which means they are essentially large scale versions of the batteries powering our cell phones and laptop computers. For the record, I generally don’t have as much trouble with these types of batteries, mainly because they come indoors with me all winter long.

Anyhow, while digging up scientific facts for a recent newspaper assignment, I discovered that a battery design patented over a hundred years ago by one Mr. Thomas Edison is on the verge of making a come back in a big way. These things are called nickel-iron batteries and have more in common with those old school rechargeable batteries from our childhood that never worked in our toys. Except these new ones work!

Interchangeable with the Zero X and Zero MX dirt bikes  the Z-Force lithium-ion battery pack on the Zero XU assists riders living in dense urban areas without easy access to street-level plugs or garages.
Will lithium-ion batteries soon be obsolete? Some inventors are looking to the past for inspiration.

The design makes use of two metal electrodes and a mixture of iron compounds and carbon that give off electricity that then travels to a sheet of nickel. While this all sounds good and heavy, to resurrect the concept, scientists reshaped the electrodes at the nanometer level (think really, really small). Then, instead of mixing iron and carbon, the researchers actually grew iron pellets atop carbon chicken wire a single atom thick. Tiny plates of nickel perched atop carbon tubes forms the other electrode. If all this sounds complicated to you – let me pose another question: At these scales, how did the researchers keep track of that chicken wire?

Long story short, if prototypes are any indication, these new nickel-iron batteries would charge faster and promise to be cheaper and safer than lithium-ion units: cheaper because iron is much more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium and safer because the fluid electrolyte between iron and nickel electrodes would not be flammable.

This all sounds like a win for me, though somehow I feel like it may be a while before this technology finds its way in the tiny compartment beneath the seat of my riding lawnmower… Which reminds me, I really better get out there and disconnect that thing before it gets dark.