David Rand has been at the heart of the energy storage world for the past 50 years. His academic achievements — he is the co-inventor of the UltraBattery and one of the electrochemists that solved the early 1990s puzzle of PCL — have been matched by a stimulating presence in the life of the industry. Mike Halls reports
Taking theory to the limits in pursuit of the better battery
It’s odd what shapes the life scientific. For some people it’s a long process that they slip into. But for others — and David Rand is one of them — there is a eureka moment.
For David, aged 12, that moment was a talk about Faraday on a school scientific outing. “I was mesmerized,” he recalls. “Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was to become a research scientist!”
David Anthony James Rand was born in October 1942 in Haslemere, a charming village in the south of England. His father a senior Royal Navy officer later responsible for degaussing — removing the magnetic field around ships, which otherwise leaves them vulnerable to mines and torpedoes — gave him an early appetite in science.
His practical interest certainly started early. An 11th birthday present of a Lott’s chemistry set characteristically resulted in gunpowder followed by controlled — and uncontrolled — explosions.
At school, he excelled academically and also on the sports field and the stage. (Even, now, in his 70s he continues as a football referee.)
1961 was to prove a pivotal year in his life. That summer he won an Open Exhibition to Trinity Hall, a college in the University of Cambridge. It was also the year he met Gwen, who became his long-suffering partner, though it took a further four years before this relationship flourished.
Cambridge in the early 1960s was an extraordinary place. Behind the walls of colleges that looked as if they had been sleeping for centuries an intellectual revolution had been going on. Five Nobel prizes to the university were awarded in 1962 — think Crick, Watson and Wilkins for determining the structure of DNA, or Perutz and Kendrew for their analysis of blood proteins.
David recalls a studied casualness about this intellectual foment. “You couldn’t get into some of the lectures if you didn’t arrive an hour beforehand,” he recalls. “Yet those same lecturers could be found chatting in the bars of an evening. Indeed, I was often the unpaid drinks waiter at their intimate bashes.”
‘Thanks but no thanks’
The famous Footlights theatre group, which was to throw up classic comedies such as Monty Python and the Goodies, was on the brink of its heyday. David auditioned for the Footlights in his first year. John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor sniffed and said: “Thanks, but no thanks”.
After graduating in 1964, Rand wanted to follow up his degree with a PhD. He had been offered two places — one at Cambridge and another at the newly-founded University of East Anglia.
Then fate dealt him a very unexpec-ted card. It was from the man who was probably to prove the most important in his academic life and hence his later career — John Agar.
The good fortune was the fact that Agar, a quiet, unassuming but absolutely brilliant scientist — his seminal papers in the late 1930s ended the so-called ‘Great Nernstian Hiatus’ — chose Rand without him even applying for the post.
Rand remembers the profound effect Agar had on his studies. “We were all in awe of him,” he says. “He encouraged us to be rigorous, open-minded and disciplined. These serious qualities have underpinned my work-life ever since.”
On top of the guidance and encouragement from Agar himself, Rand got to know Agar’s friend Tom Bacon, who had built in a nearby facility the ground-breaking alkaline fuel cell used in the Apollo space vehicles. Half a century later, Rand maintains a keen interest in hydrogen energy and fuel cell technology.
In the middle of the 1960s Britain was rapidly changing and the social revolution crossing the country swept over Cambridge too. David, now as president of the Graduate Union organized ‘beat dances’ — hiring notable performers such as Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton with his new band Cream.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney was even expected to attend a joint birthday party David was having with friends but failed to show.
The consequences were to last a lifetime.
A horde of gate-crashers turned up — including Gwen who had returned to Cambridge after a year of teaching in Norwich — to see McCartney. The evening descended into chaos and the police had to move in to dispel the crowd.
The appearance of Gwen as an uninvited guest to David’s birthday party sparked something more. They started dating. The following year, 1966, they were engaged. At the end of March 1967, they were married.
Other forces were about to shape their lives. Agar, after a year’s sabbatical which included a visit to the Division of Mineral Chemistry — part of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Melbourne, Australia — returned to the UK.
Agar enthused about CSIRO. “It’s probably the best research outfit in your field in the world,” he said. “They’re looking for a researcher — it’s right up your street. This is an opportunity you can’t miss.”
The rest is history. Rand applied for the job and was accepted.
‘Ten pound poms’
A handful of weeks later, Rand and wife Gwen became what was then popularly called ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The Australian government had an immigration scheme looking for skilled British people. The offer was a simple one. Anyone choosing to move to Australia would only pay £10 for their trip there, on condition they worked in the country for two years.
David and Gwen threw themselves into the ways of their new country with a vigour. Soon their family was boosted by the arrival of three children: Simon (1971), Timothy (1973) and Toby (1977).
Work went well. His mission was to develop better electrocatalysts for methanol fuel cells, then an exciting field of research that promised a way of side-lining hydrogen as a difficult fuel to work with. (Alas, even today, the system has failed to meet expectation.) There followed research campaigns by Rand into novel electrochemical sensors to enhance the beneficiation of mineral sulfide ores, advanced secondary batteries, and hydrogen energy systems.
In 1977 Rand was effectively promoted. CSIRO offered him a choice between setting up a photovoltaic group or, his choice, establishing a Novel Battery Technologies Group (NBTG).
As part of his remit, he was sent on a world study tour to discover how various battery manufacturers and research units were advancing ranges and capabilities of their products. First-hand, he learnt about various battery systems, particularly lead-acid, nickel-zinc and, during a three-month project at Imperial College with Brian Steele, embryonic lithium-ion chemistry. He also made a string of friends and contacts that lasts to this day.
A tucker bag of new ideas
Rand came back with a tucker bag of new ideas for research that spawned a prolific output of work — a fresh report or journal publication was pushed out almost every month and together covered a range of battery chemistries that included zinc-bromine, nickel-zinc, vanadium redox, and rechargeable zinc-manganese dioxide.
Although lead-acid was a mature technology, Rand made it a policy to explore all avenues of research to enhance its performance. An X-ray diffraction technique, PEAKS, was devised to determine the phase composition of positive active-material and thereby provide companies with new knowledge about the chemistry of battery constituents during manufacture and service.
This, in turn, allowed optimization of processing, control of product quality, increased productivity and diagnosis of production problems, as well as the explosion of much industry folklore that could inhibit advances in practice.
On occasions, his research prefigured — by a generation — areas of investigation that are hot topics today. In the CSIRO archives, for example, you’ll find a 1978 study of the effect of regenerative braking on lead-acid performance sponsored by Lucas.
“The 1970s and the 1980s were a golden time to be an electrochemist studying lead-acid batteries,” says Rand. “The giants of the industry — think Johnson Controls, VARTA, Yuasa, Japan Storage and Chloride, or some of the major research labs such as CLEPS (now IESS) in Bulgaria and Cominco in Canada— were making huge advances cell performance.
“A new generation of serious research was coming to the fore from figures as
diverse as Ernst Voss, Detchko Pavlov, John Devitt, Eugene Valeriote, Herbert Giess, Katherine Bullock, Jürgen Garche, Eberhard Meissner, Frank Fleming, David Prengaman, Ken Peters, Barry Culpin, Bob Nelson, Paul Ruetschi and Pat Moseley.”
Rand too had established a substantial reputation of his own during this period and in 1991 he was awarded the Faraday Medal by the Electrochemistry Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Interestingly, although Rand is most thought of nowadays in terms of lead-acid batteries the award citation was far wider:
‘Over the past 25 years David has made many significant contributions in different areas of electrochemistry including fuel cells, electrocatalysis, sulfide mineral processing and more recently battery systems. In particular, his successful development of methods that allow the systematic study of the physicochemical properties of lead-acid battery constituents and their influence has led to important advances in this battery technology.’
But it was two years later that Rand became the equivalent of a household name in the lead battery industry. The reason was the then seemingly intractable problem facing manufacturers and users alike.
The shorthand for the problem was PCL — premature capacity loss which drastically shortens the life of lead batteries under deep cycling. It was particularly prevalent in designs that used grids made from antimony-free or lead-calcium alloys to reduce water loss. Moreover, it was independent of plate design or how the paste was applied. The problem occurred with both flooded batteries and the then new wave of VRLA technology which had taken the telecoms world by storm in the early 1980s.
Dealing with PCL
Rand, who was working with the ALABC at the time, initiated and then took the chair of the World Study Group into Premature Capacity Loss of Lead-Acid Batteries in 1993. This was formalized in an ALABC programme when Rand became temporary manager of the consortium in 1994.
A notable contribution towards understanding the phenomenon was made by Rand and his project leaders: Tony Hollenkamp, Russell Newnham, Kathy McGregor and Lan Lam “The final piece of the puzzle, was compression,” says Rand. “And that gave us ways to defeat PCL.” A seminal explanation of the PCL effect by Tony Hollenkamp was published.
In related work by Rand’s NBTG, the formulation and application of fast-charging algorithms led to the discovery of the advantageous effect of pulsed-current charging on extending the cycle-life of batteries with grids made from low-antimonial lead or lead-calcium alloys.
Two other important commercial outcomes have resulted from the research of Rand and his CSIRO team.
The first initiative is less well-known and was the creation of the Energel/SunGEL batteries. The batteries were of immense interest to the Australian government which was looking at ways to improve living standards in some of the rural and distant locations in the country.
Rand had acquired a detailed understanding of the demands placed on batteries in so-called remote-area power supplies (RAPS) by undertaking several expeditions to tune a facility on Coconut Island in the Torres Straits, north of Australia. The remote island, population 149, sits close to the equator and is famous for its sea turtles, hammer head sharks, and vicious Moray eels.
Beyond Coconut Island
The Energel/SunGEL batteries — which eventually were to have thick positive plates made with an ultra-pure form of lead produced by Pasminco — were designed specifically to store energy from solar applications and thereby enabled isolated locations to move off diesel-powered generation.
The work of Russell Newnham showed that exceptional cycle-life (Ah-throughput) could be obtained by operating batteries within a partial state-of-charge (PSoC) window. This is believed to be the first published demonstration of the beneficial effect. Attracted by this finding, the WHO engaged Rand and Newnham to set the battery specifications for solar refrigerators employed in the Vaccine Cold Chain.
The batteries were later employed in a project set up by ILZRO (the parent of the ALABC) in two villages in a remote area of Peru. This initiative proved its worth by showing how electricity could be brought to regions where the only source of power was diesel generators and where an area the size of Texas had just 20 miles of paved road.
The second commercial contribution from CSIRO, and arguably one of the big leaps in lead battery technology for a generation, is the UltraBattery, for which Rand is a co-inventor with Lan Lam. It is the first lead-based hybrid battery incorporating a supercapacitor. The UltraBattery differs from a conventional one in its ability to provide and accept a high rates of discharge and charge, respectively, for long periods of time.
The idea came from an unlikely conversation in a bar outside a conference in Nice in 2003. Rand and Lan Lam — drawing on a beer mat — wondered what would happen if the fast charge of a supercap was put into a lead battery. Its potential within micro- and medium-hybrids could be immense,
A road test of a Honda Insight medium-hybrid, in which the original Ni-MH battery had been replaced by an UltraBattery of the same voltage, was tested for 100 000 miles in the UK. At the end of the test, the battery was still fully functional. In a similar project, a Honda Civic fitted with an UltraBattery pack ran for 150 000 miles on roads in Phoenix, Arizona.
In addition to its deployment in HEVs, the technology is capable of supporting electricity grid balancing functions that have become critical with the arrival of intermittent power from renewable sources.
The first UltraBattery patent
The first patent for the UltraBattery was granted in 2005 with Rand and Lan Lam as the authors. While being developed by CSIRO, the Japanese government helped fund the project through Furukuwa Battery. In 2007, East Penn Manufacturing in the US was brought in to help further the technology. CSIRO set up a commercial company that year called Ecoult.
A more fully formed patent was released by Lan Lam and research scientist Jan Furukuwa in 2008. Its adoption went to Furukawa Battery (no relation to Jan Furukuwa) and to Ecoult which was bought up by East Penn Manufacturing in 2010.
The UltraBattery continues to be refined further and is still regarded as the best — and certainly the most cost-effective — alternative to lithium batteries that lead can provide. It can match the performance of lithium performance in many ways but at a much cheaper price.
Rand’s contribution to the above two battery products should not detract from the huge amount of other activities in which he has been involved over the years. These have been at a governmental level representing Australia — he and Gwen became Australian citizens in 2008 — nationally and internationally in examining the role of hydrogen as part of the country’s search for a sustainable energy policy.
Rand has been a key figure in the technical assessment of papers presented at the major lead battery conferences run in Asia and Europe. He continues as the chairman of the Technical Programme Committee of the ABC — he was there at the first conference in Hong Kong in 1987 — and as a member of the Technical Committee of its later European counterpart the ELBC.
Rand retired from full-time work at CSIRO in December 2008 but remains as an Honorary Research Fellow. He is still an active researcher and a lively participant in the life of the industry.
Perhaps one of the nicest tributes to David came as part of a tribute related to the Faraday Medal and published in the Journal of Power Sources.
The eminent electrochemist Brian McNicol said, that: “Quite apart from his scientific findings that have had such influence, David has over the years been a persuasive advocate of the role of alternative power sources in society.
“In many respects, he has been an inspiration to us all, never fearing to be controversial when the need rose. His energetic participation in, and the leadership of, scientific meetings has been greatly appreciated by the electrochemical community.”