Giess wins International Lead Award at 17ABC in Kuala Lumpur

Prominent, well-respected electrochemist Herbert Giess, pictured with Mark Stevenson (right) and Andy Bush (left), won the International Lead Award 2017 at a special ceremony at the opening morning of 17ABC in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, for his contributions to the lead industry throughout his 30-year career.

It was a popular choice, and accepting the award, Giess said he was deeply honoured and thanked the people who had helped him on his way … Gaston Planté, Camille Alphonse Faure, Alessandro Volta and then some of the brilliant people he had worked with over the years, Kathryn Bullock, Jean Burbank, John Devitt and David Rand— who gave the introductory speech — among others.

Geisse was born in April 1945 in a small village called Jenesien in the German-speaking Südtirol, which is in fact part of Italy. He was the eldest of 10 children, having nine sisters younger than him. His father was an engineer from Genoa, and his grandfather hailed from Vienna — strangely a peripatetic family that was to characterize his own work life and that of his son Alexandre who lives in California.

Giess showed an early interest in chemistry and as a young teenager could be found happily manufacturing toxic gases such as chlorine, before bubbling it through bromine salts to create bromine too.

“My first job and taste for electrochemistry came with the European Atomic Energy Commission — better known as Euratom — in Ispra by Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy, and later I was transferred to Petten in the Netherlands,” he says.

“It was there that I was involved in determining ion diffusion coefficients of lead, cadmium, thallium, and zinc in molten alkali nitrates, acetates and thiocyanates with oscillographic polarography, using a dropping mercury electrode and the Randles-Sevcik equation.”

But aged 24 Giess sought pastures new, and on the day of the moon landing — July 21, 1969 — he could be found watching live television until the early hours before being interviewed for a position in the research group at the Battelle Memorial Institute Research Center in Geneva, Switzerland.

He got the job and with it, his life changed forever.

Within days of starting work he met Marie-Héléne, the French secretary for the research group. Some 48 years later they are still together. Around this time he discovered the second love of his life.

“After a project for forming insulating passivation layers on copper in liquid hydrogen fluoride I finally found my true love, the lead-acid battery,” he tells Battery Street Journal.

“I didn’t realize it immediately, but the lead-acid battery world was in for some exciting times. Delco-Remy, a division of General Motors USA, introduced in 1971 the first maintenance-free SLI battery, the Delco-Freedom Battery made with expanded metal lead-calcium grids. It was a game-changing moment for the industry.”

Because the other lead-acid battery firms were trying to compete with Delco and produce equivalent battery types, the absence of antimony in the positive grid alloy created massive amounts of early capacity failures.

A solution was needed, and urgently.

“As Battelle Geneva was a contract research organization, we offered our research services and gathered, in a multi-year collaborative research project, 12 lead-acid battery manufacturers from Europe, Japan and the US to carry out a fundamental research study,” he recalled. “The title of the programme was the ‘Shedding and Aging of the PbO2 electrode’.

“It was the ALABC before its time. Leading this program, we were able to show and document the importance of tin in preventing the passivation of the positive lead alloy grid after a deep discharge. Tin was more effective than our old friend antimony.”

Since then the presence of at least 0.2% tin in the lead alloy for positive grids has become the rule.

And on to success was built success.

“Next to solving the ohmic passivation issue, we also tackled the so-called antimony-free effect at the heart of many early battery failures,” he says.

“This company-confidential research led us, with many supporting experiments, to pinpoint the site of the nasty sudden battery failure located in the interface between the grid and the active mass.

“Not only were we able to identify the site and mode of failure, but we could also yield recommendations for production process changes processes (curing).

“We identified three modes of negative impact of the absence of antimony on the behaviour of the positive PbO2 electrode and coined already in 1977 the terms Sb-1, Sb-2 and Sb-3 effects so to describe the failures in performance.

“These investigations were again picked up anew in the ALABC consortium about 15 years later and the terms premature capacity loss PCL 1 and PCL 2 were coined.”

His research work had brought him in contact with Gould Inc — then one of the most exciting battery firms in the US — later to become GNB and later still to become Exide. He was offered a position to join the corporate R&D lab of Gould Inc. in Rolling Meadows, outside of Chicago, in 1978.  He moved out to live there that year, taking with him his young son, Alexandre.

Here he was to investigate a wide variety of promising battery chemistries such as Ni-Zn, Li-S and Zn-Br.  “However I stayed true to my first love, the lead-acid battery, and maybe my German accent and the release of the movie Das Boot helping, I was soon carrying out research for advanced lead-acid batteries for US Navy submarines,” he says.

“As a highlight of this activity, my team was able to develop a highly corrosion-resistant, titanium wire-reinforced large-size positive grid for 5000Ah capacity cells destined for back-up power in nuclear submarines.”

“The idea of reinforcing the grid with bare high purity titanium wires came when, after months of frustrating efforts to incorporate bundles of alumina fibres as reinforcement, and looking out of the lab window to a nearby construction site, it dawned on me that steel-reinforced concrete structures would be a good example for a strong grid.

“We were also very lucky that titanium is perfectly passivated at the potentials of the positive electrode and thus doesn’t corrode when exposed directly to the acid. We needed less than 10% in volume of titanium in the volume of the lead-tin alloy grid to resist creep, corrosion-induced grid growth, as also the forces expected from an enemy depth charge.

“All the current flowed along the lead volume of the grid and the titanium wire structure acted only as structural reinforcement. This avoided the ohmic resistance issues plaguing designs when a 100% titanium structure was used as active mass support.”

The Gould Submarine Battery Plant in Kankakee in Illinois was thus able to build a full-sized battery with this technique, and installed it much later in the US Navy Seawolf SSN-21 attack submarine.

But Europe beckoned again and after almost five years in the US, he joined Accumulatorenfabrik Oerlikon, one of the oldest lead-acid battery manufacturers in the world, and moved to Zürich.

“I think my promise to Caspar Weinberger, then the US Secretary of Defense, not to sell my secrets to the Swiss navy, or to join its submarine fleet underneath Lake Zurich, satisfied the US secret service that I was safe to leave,” says Giess.

Accu Oerlikon was known for many things, but one of the most famous was the Oerlikon Battery, with a gelled electrolyte, that had been developed in the 1930s. The gelling was done with a slurry of asbestos fibres and a sodium silicate solution.

This prevented acid spillage when the battery glass jars broke, and the solid gel also averted short circuits between the hanging, separator-less battery plates. Even a reduced frequency of water additions was claimed as an additional benefit, or a Sonnenschein Dryfit, before its age.

With the replacement of glass jars in the 1930s the stronger casing caused the gel to go out of fashion.

“Because I had witnessed in Rolling Meadows the birth of the Absolyte VRLA/AGM cells, as head of R&D, I convinced Accu Oerlikon management that another momentous change in lead-acid battery design was in the making with the advent of the Gould/GNB Absolyte and the Chloride Powersafe VRLA/AGM stationary batteries,” he says.

“We then brought on to the market the successful Compact-Power VRLA AGM range, going from 12V-26Ah monoblocs all the way to 2V-3000Ah single cells. The ride was not always smooth and we were, as early adopters of this technology, plagued by the VRLA/AGM characteristic negative terminal leakage and strap corrosion.

“But with tenacity and the Swiss drive for perfection and attention to detail we solved all the issues and were able to make the Rolex of the VRLA/AGM batteries.”

The next task for Giess was to get the VRLA/AGM hardware into multiple applications, from 48V radio base stations to 480V 2MW data centre back-ups and 1500V UPS systems in chip plants in Taiwan. He also tried to keep his actual and future customers abreast with critical technical details of the battery and its operation.

For this he delivered a series of international presentations on such diverse topics as: Thermal behaviour of VRLA/AGM cells and monoblocs; Abusive discharges to zero volt of VRLA/AGM monoblocs in 24V strings; Investigation of thermal phenomena in VRLA/AGM stationary lead-acid batteries with a thermal video imaging system; Operation of VRLA lead-acid batteries in parallel strings of dissimilar capacity; Very rapid recharging of large VRLA cells; Operation of VRLA monoblocs with an on/off float charge regime; The performance of VRLA cells and monoblocs under Arctic conditions; Real-time VRLA life test or how small differences can have big effects; Ground short phenomena in VRLA batteries, and so on.

Around this time he also became involved in IEC lead-acid battery standardization work, first as a Swiss expert, then as working group leader, then finally as chairman of IEC TC21 Secondary Cells and Batteries.

The recent standard IEC 60896-21 and –22 for stationary VRLA cells and monoblocs and IEC 61427-2 for batteries for renewable, grid-connected energy storage were written and published under his guidance.

In 1995 he was put in charge of transferring, in a licensing deal, a full set of manufacturing know-how to a battery manufacturing company in the Zhejiang Province of China.

The technical excellence of our VRLA/AGM cells and monoblocs had in the meantime spread to China, and after many technical, organizational and cultural challenges he says: “They were able to confirm Deng Xiao Ping’s declaration, ‘to get rich is glorious’ and ‘I don’t care what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice’, and we cloned our Swiss battery design. I am proud that our design and methods are still in use.”

This venture then led to another China job, when Accu Oerlikon set up a production line near Hangzhou, the famous Lin’an of Marco Polo.

“Having studied close to Marco Polo’s hometown of Venice in Italy I now had the privilege to become a teacher myself in one of Marco Polo’s wonders-of-the-world towns. My private interest in Chinese imperial history and antiquities helped me to win the confidence of my partners there.”

The last chapter of Giess’s career began in 2006, when he left Accu Oerlikon to became an independent consultant.

“Over the recent decade I’ve had the privilege to assist several companies in solving battery production and battery operating issues and found it always challenging to delve deep into the ‘black magic” of lead-acid battery science and technology to find a solution.”

His latest challenge in has been to guide an R&D team at Narada Power Source Co in China to build and qualify the best VRLA/AGM battery for renewable energy storage.

Looking back on almost half a century working in lead and batteries, he says he is still constantly surprised by the fact that the lessons of the past are so easily forgotten. “I’m often being approached to solve a problem of something that we’d looked at — and solved — many years ago.

“I fear for our industry that a generation of experts are going to the grave with their knowledge and expertise with them.”