Revolutionary. Perhaps that’s the only word for what was eventually to become the UltraBattery. The next leap forward in lead acid technology would not exist if it weren’t for the combined efforts of two particular men — Jun Furukawa and Lan Lam.
The UltraBattery Two — taking concept to reality
It should probably called the beer mat that made history.
But go back more than a decade and two CSIRO researchers, scribbling on a beer mat, are talking excitedly about a possible new battery. “What if,” says one, “we add a supercap to the battery mix?”
“And use that to counter difficulties with operating in partial state of charge conditions?” says the other. “The cycling potential would be awesome.”
It’s 2003, and sitting just outside the ELBC conference held in Nice that year are David Rand, head of the CSIRO battery research division, and Lan Lam, his chief research scientist.
Both are Australian. Fittingly the beer mat was for Fosters, the national beer.
The discussion was to have huge consequences for the battery industry and led to the creation of the UltraBattery — perhaps the nearest equivalent to a battery having the capabilities of a lithium ion one but at a fraction of the cost.
Two years later the first patent for the UltraBattery emerged, with David Rand and Lan Lam as co-creators.
But the stage was not yet set. Turning the idea into a practical product was not a reality. To do this would require the ideas and hard work of another. It would take another two years and involve the contribution of another brilliant CSIRO battery scientist — Jun Furukuwa.
Lan Lam was born in Vietnam in 1953 amid turbulent times during the Second Indochina War. After graduating from high school, he went to Japan in 1972 as an overseas student.
He obtained his Bachelor of Engineering (1977) and Master of Engineering (1979) degrees at Yokohama National University, and his Doctor of Engineering degree (1982) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan.
He subsequently worked at Toshin Industrial, an electroplating company for switches and connectors, as a chief of Research and Development Laboratory, until August 1987. He was responsible for the research and development of plating machines, plating solutions, gold recovery, pollution treatment, quality control and staff training.
The big breakthrough in his career battery industry, was when Lan Lam joined CSIRO in 1988.
In 1988, Lam joined Rand at the CSIRO’s Battery Research Group division as research leader for a succession of projects.
The list is impressive: technology for improved battery manufacture (GNB Australia); tin-dioxide coated glass flakes/spheres for enhanced battery performance (Monsanto Chemical, and Owens Corning Fiberglas Corporation); minor elements in lead for batteries (Pasminco); orifice pasting of battery plates (Wirtz Manufacturing); fast-charging techniques for electric-vehicle batteries (ALABC); elucidation of early failure of original equipment automotive batteries (Holden); determination of maximum acceptable levels for impurities in lead used in the production of valve-regulated lead-acid batteries on stand-by duty (ALABC); and a novel technique (Novel Pulse device) to ensure battery reliability in 42V powernets for new generation automobiles (ALABC).
In 2002, when David Rand was redeployed by CSIRO to help advance Australian efforts in the development of hydrogen, Lam became the senior principal research scientist in the Energy Storage Theme of CSIRO Energy Technology.
By 2003, instigated by David Rand, Lam and colleagues began to develop a highly efficient hybrid battery combining a supercapacitor and a traditional lead-acid battery.
And the rest was history.
Meanwhile, Jun Furukuwa was coming at the industry from a different direction.
Jun Furukawa is the cathode to Lam’s anode when it comes to the invention of the UltraBattery. In the spring of 1980 he joined Furukuwa Battery (no relation) and his first task was the research and development of lead acid batteries for electric buses at the Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau. The next year, he researched a method of manufacturing a Pb-Ca- Sn alloy strip for lead acid batteries through continuous cast rolling, its aging characteristics, and its application to batteries.
Furukawa was later assigned to the Space Technology Department, where he was involved in the fabrication of a flight model in the development of the space Ni-Cd battery (commissioned by the National Space Development Agency of Japan) and in its qualification tests at NASDA’s Tsukuba Space Center.
The developed batteries were loaded on satellites such as the MOS-1 and the ETS-5. Just over a year later, Jun Furukawa worked on the R&D of a ceramic seal terminal by the Active Metal method (Ti-Ni alloy) for space alkaline batteries such as Ni-Cd and Ni-H2.
Furukawa led a Ni-MH Battery Development Group. Having innovated a metal-Ni hydrogen storage battery, with its negative electrode being a modification of spherical nickel hydroxide, a positive electrode and a separator, the Japanese team developed sealed Ni-MH batteries, integrating these components and processes for manufacturing electrodes and batteries.
Much of his early research work was involved in designing better battery support for Japan’s space programme and Li-ion batteries, made smaller and lighter than Ni-MH, had led to a drop in prices. This was to prove an outstanding technology but had limited commercial success in part due to the arrival of Li-ion batteries.
The next few years until 2006 saw the Japanese battery innovator turn his mind to the challenge of the day: VRLA. He was assigned to the Technology Development Department and appointed leader of the MV Team and Iwaki Development Centre’s Second Group.
The challenge was the improvement of 36V valve-regulated lead-acid batteries for next-generation 42V-system automobiles, which meant examining positive and negative electrodes, battery structure, evaluation test methods, and heat dissipation mechanisms.
Since 2004, in collaboration with CSIRO, Furukawa has been part of the team questing for that Holy Grail: the UltraBattery.
“CSIRO’s Lan Lam and I started our collaborative development and completed a prototype UltraBattery FTZ12-UB with the size of a lead acid battery for motorcycles in mid-2006, just a little more than one and a half years into the collaboration,” he says. “We then participated in the ALABC’s in-vehicle test project on a Honda HEV, known as Insight.
“The in-vehicle test started at the end of 2006 and went on smoothly to achieve our original target of 50,000 miles in just half a year.
“We continued the test with a doubled target of 100,000 miles and also achieved this target in January 2008.”
This was a first in the history of lead acid storage batteries.
In March 2009, Furukawa and Lan Lam won the 2009 Technical Development Award of the Electrochemical Society of Japan for the Development of the Ultra Battery.
In 2008, the UltraBattery was licensed to East Penn Manufacturing, one of the top lead acid battery companies in the US. The technology has also been licensed to Furukawa Battery Co in Japan and is also under licensing negotiation with companies in Europe, China, India, South Africa and Australia.