Ken Peters, one of the stalwarts of the lead battery industry for over half a century, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday morning. He was greatly admired for his deep knowledge of lead batteries from a technological and business perspective as well as his kindness and generosity.
Historically Ken’s contribution to the industry is almost certainly the huge steps he made in solving many of the early teething problems of the VRLA battery but he remained a cutting edge figure even into his 80s.
“He had an encyclopaedic memory,” says Geoff May at Focus Consulting who knew Ken from their early days together at Chloride some 40 years back. “So if you ever had a problem that you were stuck on, he would be willing and able to help. Especially his friends. He was a good and wise source of information. Moreover, his intellectual powers did not diminish with age.”
He was active until just recently in evaluating technical papers for conferences and historically was one of the guiding and founding figures of the European Lead Battery Conference.
“Ken was a true gentleman of the industry, a delightful guy, always helpful and kind — he was a pleasure to know and it’s very sad that he’s no longer with us,” says David Wilson, who worked with Ken from the beginning of the ELBC in the late 1980s.
“He was one of the ultimate problem solvers too,” said Mark Stevenson, a lead industry veteran, organizer of the ABC meetings and a friend of Ken’s for many years. “If there was a practical problem that needed fixing, he was the person to go to. He knew all about manufacturing batteries.
“Moreover, because of his experience, frequently he had encountered and solved the same problem many years before.”
Early years with Chloride
Ken’s story started in 1928 with his birth in Salford, part of the industrial heartland of the UK. His early education was interrupted with the second world war when he was evacuated to rural Lancashire to escape the nightly bombings of Manchester. After the war, he obtained London University (Imperial College) degrees in General Science and Special Chemistry before the mandatory two years National Service.
In 1953, shortly after leaving the army, he married Joyce — who survives him — and shortly after that joined Chloride Electrical Storage Company at its Clifton Junction plant in Manchester.
In those days the global battery industry was dominated by three major companies. The Electric Storage Battery Company (ESB) with over 70% of the North American market, Accumulatoren-Fabrik AG (AFA) — now known as Varta — with factories throughout Europe and Chloride with plants in the UK and in all its old Imperial empire countries.
These companies were almost self-sufficient in materials and components. The Clifton Junction factory employed over 3,000 workers producing two million car batteries per year, tubular motive power cells, Planté and flat plate stationary cells, submarine, aircraft and signals defence batteries with smelters, alloy, oxide and separator production on the same site as were expanders and additive preparation.
Additionally, Chloride made containers a few miles away. Design and manufacturing technology was closely guarded and supported by a substantial technical team.
As a trainee Ken worked in all the manufacturing areas. In those days there was little automatic equipment and he was involved in installing and operating their first automatic Winkel pasting machines.
Because of his academic background he joined the research department which later moved to a new technical centre away from the demands of the manufacturing plant and equipped with the then most advanced analytical and test facilities.
Coordination versus competition
The technical director was Montefiore Barak, a New Zealander, Rhodes Scholar — and a keen sportsman who claimed to have introduced rugby to the US during his post graduate stint at Princeton University. His impact on Ken’s attitudes to the industry was huge — Barak was instrumental in starting the International Power Source Symposium (IPSS); Ken was there at the inaugural meeting in October 1958.
“It was unique within the industry at that time,” Ken later told Batteries International. “Companies did not share even limited technical and test data, and it was the principal industry conference for many years.
“Until about 1960 all the major battery companies were more or less self contained in terms of their technology, so they did their own development of virtually everything and up to then, any innovations either design or additives, separators, alloys, containers and the like were developed in house and closely guarded. R&D consisted of electrical engineers, material scientists as well as electrochemists and designers.
“But after 1960, separate and independent companies were set up to supply materials and know how. Nowadays if a battery maker requires a special expander, separator or whatever, they contact the suppliers.”
Early research work
Ken was immediately involved in a range of programmes including the manufacture of electrodeposited plates for torpedo batteries for the UK Admiralty and the development of impregnated cellulose separators. Chloride produced both microporous and sintered PVC separators (Porvic). Cellulose separators were a further cost reduction and were subsequently made at several plants from 1956 until the mid-1970s when microporous polyethylene separators became widely available.
With about 20 chemists, engineers and technicians, a workshop for making experimental designs and its own plate and cell test equipment plus supporting laboratories for physical and chemical analysis, the department’s brief was process and product development and assessment of new materials.
One of the first early and successful jobs was to assess and qualify leady oxides produced in a new Chloride designed oxide mill fitted with in-built classifiers and temperature controls, the forerunner of many later installed at numerous factories.
He later said he learned a lot about the rheology of battery pastes during that work: “Maintenance free car batteries were topical and we studied gassing rates, impurity influences, and developed and patented low antimonial alloys producing ductile thin grids which were could be cast on automatic machines. This was before the widespread use of calcium alloys, a technology adopted initially from ESB which had developed these alloys for telecom batteries.”
Chloride sponsored basic research at several British Universities and as industrial supervisor Ken visited and contributed to numerous publications in academic journals. Several of his students subsequently joined the company. Later, the University of Salford, awarded him a masters degree.
In 1960, Chloride, ESB and AFA (Varta) signed a technical exchange agreement. All three companies employed experienced and well known electrochemists and researchers.
It was almost a pantheon of people who would become the leading figures in the battery industry. Paul Ruetschi, Alvin Salkind and David Boden worked for ESB while alongside Hans Bode, a professor and also research director at AFA, was Ernst Voss, Dietrich Berndt and Eberhard Meissner.
Unfortunately the regular meetings at the three research centres were deemed to be unlawful and cooperation stopped in 1968.
This idea of greater cooperation within the industry was at the heart of Ken’s enthusiasm for the ELBC when it emerged 20 years later and his life-long desire to see the industry advance through conferences and technical meetings.
The ‘fit-and-forget’ days
Positive electrodes were the principal interest of researchers in the 1960s with studies on the polymorphs of lead dioxide, on how to increase cycle life and corrosion resistance, how to improve the efficiency of the active material and of course to develop and make low maintenance or maintenance free batteries.
In the latter case the objective was not so much to limit water additions but to market a ‘fit and forget’ battery which was highly desirable to both the car makers and the private customer.
In 1964 he started work on a programme which subsequently had a major influence on battery design. At that time sealed rechargeable Ni/Cd cells which were leak proof and lost no water in service due to the recombination of oxygen at the negative plate inhibiting hydrogen evolution, were popular for portable equipment. Earlier gas recombination devices used expensive and inefficient catalytic systems.
VRLA — making history happen
“The same recombination approach seemed possible with lead and we started work to study its feasibility,” Ken subsequently told Batteries International. “At that time I was also particularly interested in charge acceptance, not just of the cell or battery as a whole, but the individual charge acceptance of the plates and I measured this by monitoring the cathodic hydrogen and anodic oxygen evolution at different rates and temperatures and at different states of charge.
“Of specific interest was the high charge factor of the negative plate with 100% charging efficiency, that is no hydrogen evolution, until the plates were almost fully charged over a wide range of charging rates and temperatures
“High charging rates with good recombination efficiencies were possible with separator saturation being the main controlling parameter. Subsequently we made several hundred D sized cells with wound lead electrodes and Porvic separators, the most porous separator available at that time. There were cost benefits over alkaline cells but the output was relatively poor and with no great enthusiasm for this work within the company, it was shelved.”
Although the project was no longer live, at this point fate intervened with a series of meetings that were to help change the face of the battery industry forever.
“I later presented a performance comparison of three types of D cell (primary Leclanché, alkaline and lead acid) at the IPSS conference in 1971,” he said.
“At the same meeting I was approached by Don McClelland of Gates Rubber Company. I didn’t know Don nor the company whose principal business was tyres and hoses. Gates apparently had similar ideas some years earlier and had formed a venture group specifically to develop batteries for cordless equipment, nickel/zinc and lead acid being the obvious candidates.
“McClelland sent me 50 wound, D size lead acid cells which we tested and I reported to my management that they were rather special.”
The reason for this was that the highly porous resilient and compressible glass separators maintained close contact with the plate surfaces and resulted in cells which had high power capability, cycled well and, claimed Gates, could be charged seemingly, forever without water loss.
“I suggested a similar design approach could be used in Chloride’s main industrial and automotive batteries with very beneficial effects. Subsequently I was invited to visit Gates at their Denver head office for discussions with their management board,” he said.
Gates had put together an experienced team: both John Devitt and McClelland had worked on nickel/zinc and silver/zinc cells; Will Bundy, who had spent many years with the National Lead Company; and a young electrochemist named Kathryn Bullock, later to become president of The Electrochemical Society.
“It seemed I was invited to the Gates Board meeting to validate, and possibly explain the claims of their scientists,” Ken recalled. “Their interest in batteries was based on advice given to them by ADL, that small rechargeable wound cells for cordless equipment could conveniently be marketed on garage forecourts alongside their tyres and hoses.
“I explained the key points and the potential benefits of their patented cell design and subsequently a joint working group was set up to review the situation and consider the way forward.”
Over the following months the group had several further meetings. The Gates team were keen to stick to their wound cell design but their manufacturing process was slow, expensive with very high scrap levels. High purity, and expensive, lead, litharge and red lead were used with high density pastes and formation over several days.
The separators were high quality glass filter papers bought from the UK and although they were exploring cheaper US supplies, nothing had been qualified.
“It was difficult to see how Gates’ approach could be used to manufacture the larger batteries needed for industrial and automotive applications in the numbers required and at acceptable cost,” Ken said. “We agreed to follow different approaches. Gates would pursue their wound cell approach for the cordless appliance market while Chloride would consider how their existing manufacturing plant such as casting and pasting machines could be used to make products with the same beneficial features as the Gates cell.”
Ken went on to develop a range of telecom and UPS standby batteries using more or less conventional methods. Plates wrapped in compressed glass microfibre separator were inserted in strong plastic containers fitted with one-way valves.
New processes and equipment for acid filling and formation were developed and a source of good quality glass microfiber paper at a reasonable price was found at a small paper mill in Gloucestershire, which Ken’s team had previously worked on the cellulose separator programme.
Subsequently this company was acquired by H&V which sent a team to Chloride’s workshops for extensive discussions on quality standards. At that time, telecom and UPS batteries were located in central stations often in large basements near conurbations. Open top cells were common and needed frequent service and maintenance with the atmosphere both noxious and hazardous. Distributed power supplies were being considered.
In a sense the rest is history. The new valve regulated cells had appreciably higher volumetric energy density than the existing batteries. Power outputs were better and with no water losses or gases evolved they could be located on power racks in offices or where most convenient to the end user. The first prototype designs were supplied to British Telecom for trials in the late 1970s and production began at the Clifton Junction factory in 1983.
The success of the new batteries was astonishing.
By 1989 BT had installed 500,000 2v/100Ah valve regulated cells in power racks in their system X digital telephone exchanges and were installing them at a rate of 120,000 per year. In 1990 their reported reliability, based on mean time between failure (MTBF), exceeded their target and was very much better than the Planté cells in BT’s central stations. Post-1990 various design changes were made to extend service life.
Within a few years distributed power supplies with similar valve regulated designs was adopted by Telecom companies everywhere.
Parallel with the standby battery programme, Ken’s team were developing valve regulated car batteries with similar beneficial features; leak and spill proof, improved cycling and a much higher cranking performance than equivalent flooded batteries.
These batteries also had a respectable reserve capacity, always difficult to achieve in limited electrolyte designs. They had dual terminals (top and side), multiple hold-downs, a carrying handle and stackable features, all novel at that time, giving suppliers the opportunity to better display and hold a smaller range.
Production of the battery — called the Torquestarter — started in Brisbane, Australia in 1984, and was soon followed by manufacture in Tampa, (US), Benoni (RSA) and Dagenham (UK). The batteries made in Tampa and Benoni had major quality problems with many early failures and production ceased a year later. In Australia and the UK, after good early sales, the demand decreased due to the higher cost and production stopped about three years later.
Ken officially retired in 1992 but remained active as a consultant — in various capacities — but mostly for the International Lead Association. He was active on the organizing committee for the ELBC conferences until recently.
“Ken’s only fault was his support for Manchester United,” says Stevenson. “It was unflagging, total commitment. He once told me he had had a season ticket at Old Trafford for over 50 years and was sad to recently give it up. Now if he’d had said Palace, I could have understood it. I’ll miss him greatly.”
Eberhard Meissener, who was close to Ken in recent years said. “This is a big loss for the battery community and also a personal one for myself. Ken in particular helped a very green Eberhard in the early 1990s to understand the battery world outside Varta and how organizations such as the ALABC held a promise for the future.
“He was helpful to the end, indeed he assisted me in the very early stages of preparing my paper last week in Vienna.”