November 25, 2015: It’s odd to think some of the heaviest smogs over Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s were behind the recent award of the International Lead Award by Bob Nelson, the veteran electrochemist and battery expert.
But the connection is valid.
And for that we’ve also got to credit the Californians too.
In 1990 the California Air Resources Board introduced landmark legislation requiring that 10% of all cars sold in the state by 2013 had to be zero emission vehicles. With almost 25 years to clean up their act the Big Three automobile firms in the US put their heads together.
And when two or more of the Big Three are gathered together federal purses open like magic. So in early 1991 the US Department of Energy announced a three year, $262 million programme.
The result was the US Advanced Battery Consortium. Its mandate was to research battery technologies for electric vehicles.
And their remit had very deep pockets indeed.
The USABC had one particular quirk — it decided that these so-called “advanced batteries” that were to drive the EVs of the future would be any chemistry but lead.
“Lead, it’s a dinosaur technology,” said one DoE official at the time.
It was a wake-up call for the lead acid battery business.
The fight back came a few months later. ILZRO (the International Lead Zinc Research Organization) grasped the implications for the industry at once and two key people emerged — Bob Nelson and Jerry Cole — who took it on themselves to retaliate with the creation of the Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium, better known to the world as ALABC.
Their mission was to get lead acid battery manufacturers, their suppliers, smelters, research institutes and pretty anyone else interested in the party to join together — and fund — a programme dedicated to the exploration of the untapped potential of lead as a source of motive power.
While Jerry did much of the work in trying to tap funding at a governmental level, Bob had the harder task of trying to get battery manufacturers who wouldn’t even sit in the same room as their competitors, agree a common purpose for the industry.
And then put their hands in their pockets to fund it.
The result was that for the next three years Bob and Jerry crossed-and-recrossed the world trying to put the consortium together. (And then keep it together.) Bob reckoned that on average between 1991 and 1994 he flew about 250,000 miles a year. And this is not to forget Dave Prengaman who equally tirelessly notched up a similar mileage in a combination of business travel and ALABC work.
The result of Bob’s efforts can be seen in the hall of the recent ABC conference in Bangkok. “The birth of any organization is fraught but the fact that so many people are here in the conference today — and attended yesterday’s ALABC meetings, is in large part a tribute to the success of Bob’s drive and commitment two decades ago,” one delegate told Batteries International at the time.
But it was more than just a recruitment campaign. When Bob joined in July 1991 IZLRO’s plan of action was little more than a few pages on a flipboard chart. The need was for a master plan to underpin any recruitment. “It was agreed early on that while the focus would be on optimizing VRLA batteries for electric vehicle use,” Bob said later on, “so roughly half of the programme would be fundamental research that would benefit all lead acid application areas.”
This in turn was refined to research in three areas: active materials and cycle life; grids/alloys/top lead and materials; and, charging, battery management and electric vehicle battery testing. And that general approach has — broadly speaking — remained in place to this very day.
Perhaps the key policy decision taken early on was that ALABC would be an open consortium with free sharing of all research among its members (although steps were taken to protect proprietary product information) — again a defining characteristic of the present ALABC.
Bob says: “The high point of my association with the ALABC was to see technical representatives from different lead acid companies from different countries and continents sitting around the same table expressing an interest in joining an international effort to improve lead acid batteries.
“This may not sound like such as big deal now but in those days most companies jealously guarded their secrets and were loathe to interact with other manufacturers on serious technical matters.”
But to go back to the beginning.
If you ask Bob Nelson when he first started coming to grips with the lead acid battery business he pauses for a while. Born in 1940 he obtained his first degree in Chemistry in 1963 and followed that up with a Phd in in Analytical Chemistry/Electrochemistry at the University of Kansas in 1966. But that wasn’t even a prelude to the industry, he reckons.
He followed that up with a further 11 years’ teaching about the subject — four years in CalState and seven more in the University of Georgia. But again that wasn’t even a prelude to the industry — “teaching about it and doing it are two separate things” he says. And understanding VRLA batteries is a third, he’ll frankly admit.
But for Bob his special moment came in 1977 when he was offered a position with Gates Energy Products, a now legendary firm that only a decade or so before had been famous for its tyre and autoparts distribution business.
Gates, largely through the research efforts of John Devitt, perhaps the key man in the development of VRLA batteries but who had then parted company with the firm, was sitting on a gold mine but wasn’t aware of it. “When I joined they had patents that they didn’t even understand and had entered into the manufacturing of the batteries way too early” says Bob. “And partly because of that they were losing money.”
In a showdown with his manager just before Christmas 1979 — and which Bob was uncomfortably aware might cost him his job — he was unexpectedly offered his boss’s job. Despite his protestations that he had no management experience (he was told that there wasn’t time to give it then and one day, he’d be given it …) he started on the job.
Bob became a key figure in a turnaround of Gates Energy Products, as he looked at improving the manufacturing processes working first with Hollingsworth & Vose on AGM separators. Gates worked on flat plate design in Denver and then later shipped the manufacturing to UK firm, Varley with disastrous results. Bob was re-assigned to work in London to sort out the problems.
It was a period that with his wife Elizabeth he describes as one of the best in his life both professionally and otherwise — “it was fun to be the only Yank in a firm of 300 Brits!” he says. His wife he recalls used to visit every play in London at the time and he spent his holidays in Wales, reconnecting with his roots — his father was Swedish and his mother half-Welsh.
The UK firm, which toughened by the rigour of conforming to exacting military contracts, was eager to get into flat plate manufacturing as well as working out separator systems using glues and dyes for AGM batteries.
“It was one of the first mature VRLA techniques to emerge,” Bob says. “I was particularly proud of the way we started to work with thin plate technology. Gates had the patent for the infamous ‘861’ glass separator more accurately known as patent US 3862 861 courtesy of John Devitt and Don McClelland, People at the time scorned it saying that the plates would always be more prone to corrode being thinner, we proved the opposite.”
Gates shipped him back to Denver and then Warrensburg, Missouri which he reckoned was “a payback for a wonderful time in London”. He was ill during this period and is still grateful for the support that Gates gave him with costly health care.
But other work was beckoning and Dodd Carr at ILZRO reckoned that Bob’s experience would be ideal for the trade body.
Bob left Gates in 1999 joining Portable Energy Products in Santa Cruz before switching to ILZRO when the position of “Manager, Electrochemistry” finally became free.
The rest is history for most of us — but only of course part of Bob’s long career.
He confesses that he left ILZRO/ALABC in 1994 with a feeling of being burnt out. He moved to thin-plate lead acid firm Boulder Technologies for the next three years.
In his late 50s Bob moved into consultancy work and though he believes that there are still new worlds to explore in refining VRLA technology, has played key roles in looking at different ways of inventing the lead acid battery.
“In the past 15 years we’ve moved away from trying to make better lead acid batteries using just better materials or improved manufacturing techniques,” he says. “Now the future is in combining this with accurate and better plate design and processes.”
In recent years Bob has worked with firms as diverse as Advanced Battery Concepts — which is now successfully building a bipolar lead acid battery, to other firms still on their way such as Axion Power and Firefly Energy.
He continues his work for China’s Chaowei, the third largest battery manufacturer in the world.
Perhaps one of the nicest tributes came from John Devitt, one of key figures in the development of the VRLA battery. “Bob is a fine friend of mine and one of the top electrochemists we have. He is as good as it gets for present-day lead battery consulting. I’m pleased for him that his great contribution to this industry is being recognized.”
At the presentation ceremony David Rand, one of the original group that talked about setting up ALABC in 1991, introduced Bob to the audience who was then presented the medal by ALABC’s chairman David Wilson and ABC chair Mark Stevenson.