SADLY NO LONGER WITH US 150 150 Batteries International

September 22, 2016: No review of the past 25 years of the industry would be complete without some mention of the leaders that have died — and their legacy.

Passing the baton from generation to generation

Looking back over some quarter of a century in the life of a publication is a difficult one, especially when we look back at those that have died but made huge contributions to the battery world.

We’ve selected five giants, in our opinion, that are especially worthy of note in their own particular fields — DeLight Breidegam, representing the best of battery manufacturing excellence and human decency in growing East Penn from scratch; Gordon Ulsh for combining the best of corporate intelligence and humanity; Otto Jache for his astonishing electrochemical contribution to the lead battery industry; Jim Sudworth as the man who took the odd sidelined chemistry of sodium sulfur and made it into a respectable battery technology; and the genius of Stan Ovshinsky, the polymath who, among other things, put NiMH batteries into the first generation of practical electrical vehicles.

We have also assembled another set of people who have left a legacy that we must still continue to respect.

Four academics immediately sprang to mind when we compiled this: Vladimir Bagotsky, Tom Bacon, Jeanne Burbank and Brian Conway.

Bagotsky was the genius who created practical silver-zinc, mercury-zinc batteries for the first Russian spaceships and also the first textbook on electrochemical kinetics.

Bacon also deserves mention for putting batteries into space — for him the US Apollo missions — but his major achievement has been to make fuel cells respectable. He was the engineer who developed the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell.

Burbank achieved an international reputation as an all-round lead battery expert but was particularly noted for her work using X-rays and electron microscopy to better understand corrosion in batteries.

Conway is best known as the father of the supercapacitor — and all the more so since he coined the term!

And then there’s Al Salkind, one of the greatest electrochemists of his generation, who passed on just last year.

We had a wide range of non-academic business people that merited attention but in the end plumped for two special people who were as much known for their easy-going popularity as their vision of where the battery industry should go.

Bill Wylam was the driving force in creating market acceptance for the maintenance free — VRLA — battery when it persuaded General Motors to manufacture them and put them in their cars.

Sally Miksiewicz, similarly, was the driving force behind taking an advanced lead product, the UltraBattery, and making it mainstream.

Alvin Salkind (1927-2015) 


Al Salkind, one of the greatest electrochemists of his generation — and a true pioneer in shaping our understanding of the processes involved in batteries of all types — died in June 2015.

A prodigious IQ of well above 150 helped propel him through bachelors and masters degrees and a doctorate at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn better now known as New York University.

He learned electronic repair in the Eddy program of the US Navy. Most of his graduate studies were part-time, while he worked at Usalite, a small manufacturer of dry and special cells, and Sonotone, where he was a senior engineer responsible for nickel-cadmium cell components.

Alvin Salkind

Alvin Salkind

In his doctoral training, his major field was chemical engineering and his minor fields were chemistry and X-ray physics.

In 1958, Salkind started work as head of a research group at the central labs of ESB Inc (common trade or divisional names included Exide, Rayovac, Grant, Edison, Willard) in Yardley, which is near Princeton in Pennsylvania.

While at ESB Inc he took research management courses at Penn State University and as a member of the Industrial Research Institute he took special research management training at Harvard Business School.

In the 1960s ESB supplied Ernest Yeager of Case-Western Reserve University with the catalyzed silver electrodes for his mercury-amalgam fuel cell designs.

In 1970 Salkind became president of the Research Lab Corporation and a vice-president of the parent NYSE listed company. ESB had licensees, technology collaboration agreements and equity interests throughout the world and at one point owned the Chloride Battery Company in the UK.

The agreements included the NIFE (Jungner) company in Oskarshamn Sweden, where Uno Falk was chief engineer; on alkaline batteries, Varta in Kelkheim Germany, where H Bode was research director; on lead-acid and dry cells (Voss was also there); Hellesens in Denmark on dry cells; Toshiba in Japan; Century in Australia; Tudor in Spain; Microlite in Brazil; and more.

During the 1970s Salkind collaborated with Yeager in editing Techniques of Electrochemistry published by Wiley.

The book became an instant classic.

A Russian translation was published by Mir. Total sales have since approached 20,000. In 1980, Salkind assisted Yeager in starting the Center for Electrochemical Sciences at Case as a part-time visiting professor and executive director of the centre.

In 1974, ESB was acquired by INCO but in 1979 closed the central lab.

Salkind returned to teaching with two half-time appointments. The first was as a tenured full professor in the Rutgers Medical School, where he was head of a bioengineering division of the department of surgery. There he developed battery powered medical implants.

The second was as a professor and later associate dean of the Rutgers School of Engineering. He founded the Rutgers Center for Energy Storage Materials and Engineering, where improved silver-zinc and lead-acid batteries were developed.

His consulting engineering company, Alvin J Salkind Associates, has carried out projects across the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia.

After retiring from Rutgers in 2004, Salkind became a part-time faculty member and lecturer at the University of Miami, City University (NYC), and at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He was a visiting professor at the Academy of Science (Moscow), Technical University (Graz), Academies of Science in Belgrade, Serbia, and Zagreb, Croatia, in Japan, and at the Chinese Academy of Science in Jilin.

Salkind has been the author or editor of 11 other books and volumes. He is the author of more than two dozen patents, 120 technical peer-reviewed papers, and more than 400 articles.

Just before he died Salkind said he was organizing an LLC to study advanced energy storage battery systems, especially suited for locations with no grid. “There are bright and willing people everywhere. Take time to learn from them. The world is a small place and needs preserving,” he said.

Vladimir Sergeevich Bagotsky (1920–2012) 

Putting power into difficult spaces

Vladimir Sergeevich Bagotsky is best known for two things: his work on developing batteries that could function in different and demanding environments and his theoretical and practical research into electrochemical power sources.

After graduating from Moscow State University he held a research position at the Department of Electrochemistry and the most important result of this period was his participation in a joint publication, in 1952, of the Kinetics of Electrode Processes — it was the first textbook on electrochemical kinetics.

Vladimir Sergeevich Bagotsky

Vladimir Sergeevich Bagotsky

Between 1949 and 1965, Bagotsky worked at the All-Union Research Institute of Power Sources. He contributed substantially to the development of a series of innovative batteries for submarines, aircraft, and spacecraft, most notably silver-zinc batteries, mercury-zinc batteries, water-activated batteries, and thermal reserve batteries.

The first space satellite, Sputnik, which was launched on October 4, 1957, was equipped with three silver-zinc batteries made under Bagotsky’s supervision.

The Sputnik-1 transmitted signals for 22 days before its batteries failed. Later, other Soviet spacecraft, including the Vostok with Yuri Gagarin in 1961, were equipped with these batteries. For these achievements, in 1959 Bagotsky was awarded the degree of Doctor of Technical Sciences without even being required to present a thesis. By this time, he had been twice awarded the Order of the Red Banner (1956 and 1957), and in 1961, he was finally awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.

When Frumkin founded the Institute of Electrochemistry in 1958, he invited Bagotsky to work as head of the power sources division. It was during this period that systematic studies of various basic aspects of electrochemical power sources — electrocatalysis, electrode kinetics on porous electrodes, electrochemical intercalation — were initiated.

From 1960, Bagotsky became a leader of fuel cell development in the Soviet Union, and from 1980 he supervised the Russian R&D related to lithium batteries.

After retirement, Bagotsky moved to the US and continued his professional activity publishing the second extended edition of Fundamentals of Electrochemistry in 2006) and Fuel Cells: Problems and Solutions in 2009.

Tom Bacon (1904–1992) 

Fuel cell pioneer

Francis Thomas Bacon is best known for his work with the fuel cells he developed that were used in NASA’s Apollo programme between 1961 and 1975 and which first put men on the moon. But his major achievement was being the engineer who developed the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell.

Bacon spent most of his life working on fuel cells both at home and later on in research labs. He was a firm believer that the fuel cell would be the power horse of the automotive industry in the 21st century.

Tom Bacon

Tom Bacon

He began experimenting in his home in his 20s but it was only in 1940 that he was able to start full-time work on the hydrogen oxygen fuel cell at King’s College, London and later at Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. Partly by dint of hard work — rumour was that there was never a day when he not in the laboratory — and partly by admirable ingenuity he was able to present a working six-cell fuel cell battery at an exhibition in London, producing 0.8 V per cell at 230 mA/cm-2.

In 1949, he demonstrated a 5 kW 40-cell battery, with an operating efficiency of 60%. The patents for the fuel cell were ultimately licensed by Pratt and Whitney as part of a successful bid to provide electrical power for NASA’s Project Apollo.

In January 1954 he was awarded a US patent “Alkaline primary cells…. An electrical primary cell comprising a container, an electrode of nickel mounted in said container and having a coating of nickel oxide, in which lithium is incorporated and an alkaline electrolyte in contact with said electrode.”

He made enough progress with the alkali cell to present large-scale demonstrations. One of the first of these demonstrations consisted of a 1959 Allis-Chalmers farm tractor powered by a stack of 1,008 cells. With 15,000 watts of power, the tractor generated enough power to pull a weight of about 3,000 pounds.

DeLight Breidegam Jr (1928-2015) 

Manufacturer, philanthropist

DeLight Breidegam Jr, the co-founder of East Penn Manufacturing, was as widely respected for his creation of a battery manufacturing giant in the US as his ethical business creed to employees, suppliers and customers. Part of the genius of the firm was the work culture DeLight created. Employees saw themselves as part of a family united in a business rather than having a traditional confrontational boss-work relationship.

The East Penn story started on October 3, 1946 when DeLight Jr was discharged from the US Air Force. It was his 20th birthday and the day he and his father co-founded East Penn.

The business proposition was simple: the war had made materials for new batteries scarce, but there was a great demand for rebuilt batteries to allow the returning soldiers to restart mothballed cars and trucks. The two DeLights collected old batteries and rebuilt them.

The following year the Breidegams took on a partner, Karl Gasche, a MIT engineering graduate who became vice-president, and it was incorporated as East Penn Manufacturing Company.

As raw materials became available, instead of rebuilding old batteries the company made new car batteries. Their product line was named Deka — being the first letters of DeLight and Karl.

Manufacturing batteries in quantity involved the need to smelt lead for the new batteries, and so the fledgling firm built a small smelter nearby. This was also the first building of what would one day become two million square feet of operations on nearly 500 acres.

DeLight Breidegam Jr

DeLight Breidegam Jr

In 1950 they had just six staff though the Deka brand was already being recognized for its quality and price. But then growth was fast and sizeable. It had 350 staff in 1971 reached 700 five years later. East Penn produced more than a million batteries in a year for the first time in 1976. . Nowadays East Penn makes more than 125,000 a day.

From 1969 onwards he was an active participant and occasional head of lead industry bodies.

The company also made history in environmental protection. Here DeLight early on had seen the way the battery industry needed to go. “People thought that waste was normal,” he said in a later interview. “Then in the 1960s, the environmental stuff started to come. Some people threw their hands up and said, ‘There’s no way.’ And I always said, ‘Well … heck, we’re going to try.’”

Today it recycles some 30,000 batteries a day, including the acid and plastic.

In 1992, the annual battery total passed the five million mark. East Penn was now a state-of-the-art industry model, fully prepared for the 21st century. Every stage of the manufacturing process was computer-aided and the most tedious jobs were now fully automated.

East Penn has regularly been voted one of the best places to work in Pennsylvania. It has a long history too of retaining staff with many employees now into their third and fourth decades of employment with the firm.

The firm’s persistent interest in new technology has propelled it to the front in lead acid battery manufacturing. In 2008, East Penn entered into an exclusive agreement with Furukawa Battery, a Japanese battery manufacturing company, and CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), the Australian national science agency, to release the revolutionary UltraBattery technology in North America that would be manufactured by East Penn.

The UltraBattery is a completely new class of advanced lead acid technology that combines the added benefit of an asymmetric supercapacitor. This provides an optimal balance of energy storage with quick charge acceptance, power discharge and longer life spans than existing technology in the marketplace.

The UltraBattery can challenge the advances of lithium ion batteries as it can operate in a partial state of charge at a far more competitive price. East Penn holds the exclusive license to develop, test and release the UltraBattery technology for reserve power applications through its subsidiary, Ecoult.

DeLight had a profound interest in moving ahead with new technology. East Penn has long had a reputation for being ahead of its rivals in machinery and manufacturing processes. “He used to say that those who said ‘wait and see’ before introducing new technology or methods had decided to go out of business — they just hadn’t decided the date yet,” says Dan Langdon.

DeLight was a practising Christian. He was also a highly generous donor to the community. “DeLight provided infrastructure and scholarships at Moravian College that transformed the face of the campus and the futures and lives of hundreds of our current students and graduates alike,” says Bryon Grigsby, the college president.

Perhaps the last word about his life and the corporate philosophy he fostered should come from him. “I grew up so humbly, I never had anything. Now, I live in a nice home, I drive a good car compared to what I used to. That’s about it. But I like to go in the plant and see what they’re doing and pat a guy on the back and tell him I think he’s doing a hell of a good job for us. And if he makes me some money, I’ll share it with him.”

Gordon Ulsh (1946-2013) 

Exide turn-around king

Gordon Ulsh, the man behind the astonishing turn-around of Exide in the late 2000s — bringing it out from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and into sound health — died suddenly on February 1.

Both the career of Ulsh and the man himself were the stuff of legend.

Born from humble stock in Valparaiso, Indiana in 1946, he never forgot his origins or ever regarded himself as more important than the workers on the shop floor.

Although Ulsh is best remembered for his turn-around of Exide, by the time he had reached there in 2005, he had already had an astonishing — and varied — career working in and around the US automotive industry.

He spent the first 16 years of his career working in progressively senior positions at Ford Motor Company and then became a vice president of operations at a Cooper Industries subsidiary.

He later headed up the $3.8 billion worldwide aftermarket division of Federal-Mogul Corp, which had acquired Cooper Industries in 1998. He became Federal-Mogul’s president and chief operating officer in 1999.

Key to his later work at Exide was his understanding of financial operations and his awareness of what investors were looking for.

He joined Exide from FleetPride, the largest US distributor of truck parts, where as president and CEO, he was responsible for a recapitalization and financial restructuring which helped the company at a critical moment in its development.

But to understand Ulsh’s achievement at Exide one needs to understand the tremendous mess the company had got itself into in the years running up to his appointment in April 2005. For a start, he was the fifth president of the firm in just eight years.

The very size of Exide had created its own set of problems — most particularly in that the economies of scale had been lost in scale itself. In April 2002, Exide filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In May 2004, a financial package whereby the firm’s debt was reduced by $1.3 billion was approved and Exide emerged from Chapter 11. Inevitably shareholders were burnt as were key suppliers and customers.

Gordon Ulsh

Gordon Ulsh

Ulsh, talking to Batteries International in 2009, said: “Perhaps the key problem was one of low morale. There was no questioning the competence and expertise of many of the management or their dedication to Exide, but morale was very low.”

The situation was compounded by the fact that even before the move into Chapter 11, many of the firm’s key staff had been drifting away. Staff morale, low from within, was also taking numerous hits from the outside.

“The only thing that erases self-doubt is success,” Ulsh said. “Turning around morale is the constant reinforcement of successes, be they small or large. “People call it ‘celebrate success’. You really have to thank people and praise them, and after just a little bit of celebration, you raise the bar so that we keep trying to get better the next time.”

Ulsh never subscribed to the idea that the chief executive had to have an over-whelming, all-encompassing ‘vision thing’. His immediate strategy was a classic for a large firm with serious cashflow problems.

There was an immediate clamp-down on costs, a freeze on new hires and a vice-like grip on capital expenditures which, for the immediate interim, could only be approved by Ulsh himself. “With that in place it soon became clear we could start defining what kind of service model we wanted to develop. As such, we didn’t have a set plan for how we were going to operate. We knew that we were going to have to bend our plans to fit circumstances.”

Unpleasant decisions also had to be made early on. Exide shut down its automotive battery plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, closed its operations in Ireland, and shrunk its operations in Greece.

After the first months at the head of Exide, Ulsh steered the development and emergence of a more formalized operations improvement programme.

The initiative was called ‘Take Charge!’, and it was designed to build upon the lean manufacturing ExCELL system already in place. The immediate aim of Take Charge! was to empower teams of employees to identify opportunities to eliminate wasteful practices, reduce variability and cut costs in all aspects of the business.

Ulsh realized that at the same time as Take Charge! was launched, he needed to devise common metrics for performance.

This meant that it would be possible to compare costs, staffing levels and output across, for example, Exide’s 10 recycling facilities around the world.

Ways of achieving greater productivity took other forms.

Ulsh told staff initially in the US, and later in its European operations, that there would be no salary raises in the year ahead. He put the idea simply — there was not enough money to go around. For extra money to be available, more money had to be created. Productivity had to go up.

Ulsh retired from Exide — a dramatically improved firm — in June 2010.

Sally Miksiewicz (1962-2014) 

Leader in advanced lead 

Sally Miksiewicz, chief executive officer of East Penn Manufacturing, will be remembered for the legacy she leaves the lead battery business in being the first battery manufacturer to take the UltraBattery seriously — still perhaps the best alternative advanced lead battery on the market.

As part of this she grew close to Ecoult, which had commercialized the product from CSIRO, the Australian research institute that invented it. In the end she led the way and acquired Ecoult for East Penn.

She started work at the family company in June 1984 after graduating with a BA in business management and sociology.

Sally was the daughter of DeLight Breidegam, who founded East Penn on his return from the Second World War. DeLight was keen that Sally learnt the family business from the ground up. She started in sales.

Sally Miksiewicz

Sally Miksiewicz

In her 30 years with the firm she progressed from junior positions to ever more senior ones, eventually moving from being in charge of her own territory to a sales director of one of East Penn’s divisions and then into greater management positions.

She was fortunate to be around in the massive expansion of the company during the 1980s and 1990s when East Penn rolled out warehouses across the US and Canada and branched out into other product segments requiring battery power from marine applications, to golf carts, to wheelchairs.

She later worked closely with the personnel department — work that rounded out her understanding and belief that it was possible to create a corporation that could think and act like a family.

Before her appointment as chief executive of East Penn in 2009 she was vice chairman and secretary of the corporation, working in government affairs and leadership development, among other duties.

Sally had many business accomplishments, but one that will be remembered is the way that she pushed for East Penn’s adoption and manufacture of the UltraBattery, a landmark that drastically improved lead acid battery performance, under partial state-of-charge conditions.

At first East Penn’s interest was mostly in automotive applications of the UltraBattery but Sally, realizing its potential, also pushed for developing it for stationary and other applications. She was the key figure in getting US Department of Energy support for a 3MW advanced battery frequency regulation project.

Bill Wylam (1935-2014)

Maintenance free battery champion

Bill Wylam, one of the best-known figures in the US battery industry of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, will best be remembered for the way he led General Motors to adopt the so-called ‘maintenance free’ battery and so changed the face of the lead acid battery industry.

His first job, immediately after graduating, was with the Delco Remy Division of General Motors. He was to work for the corporation and its subsidiary for the next 40 years in a variety of senior positions including chief engineer, batteries, director of international manufacturing and director of technology development.

Wylam ultimately was the mastermind in moving GM from the then-standard antimony-based batteries to the so-called Delco Freedom batteries where the lead-calcium grids are stronger, more resistant to overcharging, gassing and the like and where battery life was longer.

The result would be a complete re-think of GM’s operations.

Bill Wylam

Bill Wylam

Plants to build the new batteries were needed and, since GM was already a global player, there was an international perspective. The result was that Bill — with a cast of hundreds of engineers reporting to him — was responsible for the creation of plants across the world manufacturing everything from the new expanded grids in huge automated lines to the new casing.

He fought for at least two decades against GM’s notion that a battery was a commoditized product rather than a source of value.

By the late 1980s GM had five manufacturing plants in the US, another in Canada, yet another in Brazil, South Korea, France, Mexico and a joint venture in Saudi Arabia.

Each plant was able to pump out some 7,500 to 10,000 batteries a day.

Wylam was also one of the earliest to see the potential of outsourcing suppliers to developing nations and he created large joint venture companies in Korea and China for producing automotive starters, generators, ignition systems and batteries in the mid to late 1980s.

He is equally well remembered for his work on the motor and battery system for the GM EV1 electric vehicle — the 1997 forerunner of the Chevrolet Bolt, which goes into production later this year.

Brian Conway (1927-2005) 

The father of supercapacitors 

the father of the supercapacitor (he even coined the term) — was born in Farnborough, UK in January 1927. He attended Imperial College London, where he became part of an elite group of 10 researchers led by electrochemist John Bockris.

Bockris and Conway attended discussions at the Faraday Society where they met a famous group of Russian electrochemists — including Alexander Frumkin, the founder of the Institute of Electrochemistry of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and Boris Kabanov, later a senior figure in the institute — with whom he kept in contact in later years.

Conway joined the Chester Beatty Cancer Research Institute, University of London, in 1949.

In 1954, Conway moved to the University of Pennsylvania to join his former PhD supervisor, John Bockris.

He stayed until 1956, when he was persuaded by chemical kinetics pioneer professor Keith Laidler to apply for a faculty position at the chemistry department of the University of Ottawa. Conway — later a Canadian citizen — stayed there for 49 years. He became a full professor in 1962 and four years later chairman of the department.

The way we were. The Royal College of Science Electrochemistry Group, 1947-1948. Front row, second from right Brian Conway, seated two further from right, John Bockris, friend and mentor

The way we were. The Royal College of Science Electrochemistry Group, 1947-1948. Front row,
second from right Brian Conway, seated two further from right, John Bockris, friend and mentor

Conway worked on nearly all aspects of electrochemistry: the electrified interface, ion solvation, adsorption, electrode kinetics, oxide film formation, electrocatalysis, rechargeable batteries and electrochemical capacitors.

Between 1975 and 1980, he carried out extensive work on the ruthenium oxide type of electrochemical capacitor. In 1991 he coined the term ‘supercapacitor’ as the explanation for increased capacitance by surface redox reactions with faradaic charge transfer between electrodes and ions.

Conway’s work in applied electrochemistry has allowed the development of rechargeable, compact batteries and supercapacitors for cellular phones.

In the early 2000s, Axion Power International developed its e3 Supercell, a low-cost battery-supercapacitor hybrid that uses the same cases, materials, internal components and manufacturing equipment as conventional lead-acid batteries. Conway collaborated with East Penn and Sandia National Laboratories, a testing facility owned by the US Department of Energy and managed by Lockheed Martin Corp.

Jeanne Burbank (1915–2002) 

X-ray analysis of batteries

Jeanne Burbank was one of the earliest battery pioneers interested in exploring the crystalline structure of lead acid batteries and developing various X-ray techniques to probe them. She was also arguably the first woman to prove that parity was possible in the male-dominated lead industry and military.

Burbank’s story starts after the death of her husband in 1946 and her return to Washington, DC where she worked as a research chemist for the Naval Research Laboratory, specializing in the microstructure of lead acid submarine batteries. In 1949, she co-authored a report “Phosphate Coatings on Steel”, then in 1952, “Positive-grid Corrosion in the Lead-acid Cell: Corrosion Rates of Tin Alloys and the Effect of Acid Concentration on Corrosion” and “Subgrain Structure in Lead and Lead- antimony Alloys.” In 1958, she received her first patent for a battery grid and plate.

During the 1960s, Burbank and her colleague Charles Wales developed the electrolytic cell for X-ray diffraction studies of electrodes, such as silver, to provide analysis for battery companies such as Gates and Johnson Controls.

Jeanne Burbank

Jeanne Burbank

Burbank was a leader in the difficult analysis of the entirely different roles played by the two polymorphs of lead dioxide in the battery operation. One markedly increased the physical stability of PbO2, while the other was the principal source of reactive energy.

Significant groups in the US and Germany were struggling with this question, which influenced both battery design and the processing of materials in manufacture. The cooperative work resulted in a better understanding of the crystallographic structure of active materials. Her colleague, Al Simon, of Arlington, Virginia, did parallel studies with the very latest technology from a scanning electron microscope.

She was a recipient of numerous awards. In 1969, she received the sixth annual William Blum Award from the National Capital Section of the Electrochemical Society. The commendation said: “Your methods of applying X-ray and electron microscopy to the materials and components of lead-acid and silver-zinc batteries have made a substantial contribution to the understanding of battery grid corrosion and active materials reactions.”

She published more than 35 articles in professional journals, and received numerous awards for her work and publications.

Otto Jache (1915-1993) 

Creator of gel battery

Theodor Sonnenschein didn’t realise it at the time. But when in 1910 he set up his factory Akkumulatoren Fabrik — its speciality, starter batteries — he was providing the breeding ground for a generation of gel-based batteries that were to transform the energy storage industry a couple of generations later.

Sonnenschein’s unknown protégé was Otto Jache, born in Berlin in 1915.

The first half of Jache’s life was clouded by the destructive pall of war. He never knew his father, who died in the First World War, and his 20s and 30s were overshadowed by the Second World War and its aftermath.

After school, Jache went to work as a chemical engineering technician, first for engineering firm C Lorenz and then at the Edeleanu petroleum refinery in Berlin.

As the clouds of war descended in 1939 Jache, like millions of others, became a soldier, fighting for Germany in France and later in Finland. As the war started to unravel and the Germans started to retreat he was forced to make a dash from Finland, when it signed the armistice in September 1944, to his homeland. In a marathon journey more suited to a movie he escaped via Norway, accompanied by a Norwegian, Reidum Ingrid Karlsen, who had collaborated with the Germans and was also fleeing for her life. Reidum was later to become his wife.

Immediate post-war Germany faced the seemingly impossible task of regaining its place in the industrial world. But Sonnenschein managed to set up a new factory in Hessen and its staff included the “Chemoteckniker” Otto Jache.

Otto Jache

Otto Jache

Jache’s first job at Büdingen was to cast lead grids for pasting together into positive and negative plates. For small batteries, these could be as much as 12 plates. To transport quantities of these around, with his fellow workers, Jache designed and built electric trolleys to replace the horse-drawn ones.

In terms of living quarters, everyone at Sonnenschein had to make do with what was available. For the next 30 years, Otto Jache’s home was to be a converted former ammunition depot, just 200 metres from the factory.

It was here that his three children grew up. This proximity to his laboratory would mean that Otto could — and did — work into the night as he did not have far to get home.

In 1957 a change of management sought to improve the batteries which were used in small electronics equipment. Such batteries were tilt-proof but only operated when upright.

For Jache it was an opportunity to be seized. It was also a revolution in the making — as significant as John Devitt and Don McLelland’s pioneering development of the VRLA battery.

Otto Jache formed a team to research dryfit batteries which could be used in transistor radios, photoflashes and the like. His team found that lead-calcium (PbCa) gave a cleaner step from charging to H2-emission and avoided the formation of poisonous SbH3. Silica immobilized the electrolyte. Oxidation of the negative plates by air was hampered by a valve, integrated in the cover.

The first dryfit gel batteries were two cell 1Ah, Type 2Ax2, delivered in October 1958, although Jache’s patent was filed the year before. As they came to be accepted, these dryfits were used in telecommunications for gliders and even, as one report once said, “environmentally important applications like toilets for cats and golf carts”.

Jache’s invention, the first truly maintenance-free battery, had been born. Within a decade it was to become the international standard for batteries.

In 1965 the first dryfit licence contract was established with Globe Union.

In 1978 larger gel-filled cells for industrial batteries from 24 up to 120 volts were developed. These were to remain in production until 1984.

Jache was to remain an innovator and battery pioneer for the rest of his life and his patent list of refinements pay attribute to his application and intelligence.

In his last years he was also a popular figure on the conference circuit and was entered as the 14th member of the exclusive electrochemist club known as Alpha/Beta.

Jache died on January 10, 1993, aged 78.

Unlike other battery pioneers such as his contemporary Sam Ruben he never received any awards for his contribution to the world’s technology.

Because of its gel technology and the export and worldwide service of its gel batteries since the 1960s, Sonnenschein became well known as a technology and quality leader throughout the world. In 1991, this good reputation was transferred to CEAC, which in 1995 was bought by Exide Technologies in the US.

Jim Sudworth (1939-2013) 

Master of molten salt

in the development of the molten salt battery, died in November 2013 in Schenectady, New York. He was one of the foremost experts in sodium metal chloride and sodium sulfur batteries — and quite literally wrote the book on sodium sulphur.

He was also the leading figure in developing and commercializing the sodium metal chloride battery.

Born in the north of England in 1939, he left school at the age of 16 with rudimentary qualifications. However, by dint of hard work, a good brain and tenacity he obtained a degree from the UK’s Royal Society for Chemistry. After a number of positions leveraging his expertise in chemistry, he began his work in energy storage in 1965 for Chloride, then one of the top three battery manufacturers in the world.

In 1967, he joined British Rail at its new technology centre in Derby which, among other things, aimed to adapt the research of two Ford scientists who had been developing a sodium sulfur battery and applying that to the rail business.

He rapidly became the head of the electrochemistry section at British Rail and for the next 15 years, was responsible for directing a team of up to 40 scientists and technicians in the development and production of beta alumina (the ceramic electrolyte used in sodium sulfur batteries) as well as cells and batteries.

After the abrupt shutdown of the project in the economic crisis of 1981, he suggested to two colleagues that they should effect a management buy-out of British Rail’s defunct operations. It was to be both successful as a business — he became managing director of Beta Research and Development — and created a cutting edge research institution.

Over the next two decades Beta R&D was to establish the pedigree of sodium sulfur as an energy storage medium and — through incorporating Johan Coetzer’s Zebra battery — the commercialization of the sodium metal chloride battery. Fleets of vehicles running across Europe are indebted to Jim’s pioneering research. “His professional legacy is evident in monumental battery factories in Switzerland and America and the hundreds of lives those factories have enriched,” said a family statement after his death.

Jim Sudworth

Jim Sudworth

Moreover, he was responsible for finding a host of other applications for the sodium metal chloride battery. These vary from a battery for down-hole operations in the oil and gas industry, a high power version of the battery for hybrid vehicle operation and a battery that powers a NATO rescue submarine (and which is still in operation).

In September 2007, Beta R&D was acquired by General Electric Transportation Division, and is assisting in the development of sodium nickel chloride batteries for telecom, UPS, hybrid locomotive and utility applications. Three years later GE Energy Storage invested more than £1.7 million in the technology with Sudworth at the heart of the development of its stationary power, ‘Durathon’, business. GE is in the process of reorganizing the technology which, however, has not lived up to expectations.

In 1985 with Roger Tilley, Sudworth co-authored the seminal book “The Sodium Sulfur Battery” which remains the industry textbook to this day.

In January 2003, he was awarded the Earnest Yeager Memorial Award from the International Battery Association.

At a personal level, he was also a man much loved by family and friends, as much for his abilities as the way he deployed them.

“Jim devoted much of his life to developing new batteries aimed at revolutionizing the way energy is used. His work took him to many countries where he became known for both his intellect and his wit,” said a colleague.

“Jim did not just work, he developed relationships — mentoring younger acquaintances and pushing more experienced colleagues to excel in their work.”

Another close colleague told Batteries International: “It was Jim’s energy, vision and persistence that allowed all of us to meet, develop friendships and literally launch a new business. Few people are lucky enough to share in the experience of so much creation… many fewer actually drive it to happen. Jim had a unique ability to improve the lives of people around him. I’m fortunate to have been able to call him a friend.”

Ernst Voss (1923-2004) 

Discoverer of α-Pb02

Ernst Voss was born on August 29, 1923, in Nortorf in the state of Holstein in Germany. Like many of his generation his life was disrupted by the Second World War — he was drafted into the army in 1942 and taken prisoner in 1944, and detained in the US until the Armistice.

Unable to study chemistry at Hamburg University — all the places were occupied in 1946 — he obtained a free chemistry university place with studies in classical philology at Hamburg University. But he started studying chemistry full time in 1948 and finished in 1953 with the Diplom-Chemiker degree. In 1955 he was awarded a doctorate from the same university. His doctoral thesis, devoted to structures of hexafluorometallalates, was inspired by the lectures of professor Hans Heinrich Bode.

As with David Rand, who had a mentor in John Agar, it was Bode who supported Voss in his electrochemical ambitions by finding him a post as co-researcher in the central research laboratory of Accumulatoren-fabrik at Kelkheim near Frankfurt am Main, Germany. That same year was also momentous as he married Ruth Steiner. Their daughter Erdmuthe was born in 1958, their son Wolfgang in 1963.

For nine years, Voss researched lead acid batteries in depth. In 1964, he became manager of the department for product research and development and widened his activities to include studies on nickel cadmium cells.

Ernst Voss

Ernst Voss

In 1973, he was appointed manager of the technology department for primary and new systems and his researches were starting to bring him more international reputation. This position allowed him to become acquainted with many different types of primary systems including zinc carbon, alkaline manganese, zinc silver oxide, and lithium organic cells. Despite this extra work Voss still pursued his research and studies on both lead acid and nickel cadmium cells.

In 1978, Voss was made department director and received authorization to represent VARTA Batterie in legal matters. During 1976–77, he joined a research program in lithium iron sulfide molten salt batteries at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US.

He then established and inaugurated a similar program at VARTA’s R&D lab. This work was continued for many years under his supervision.

Voss was appointed director of the research and development centre of VARTA Batterie in Kelkheim in 1981, which involved information, planning, patents, government contracts and contacts with universities.

Mainly Voss worked at understanding the behaviour of lead acid batteries. He was the inventor, or a co-inventor, of 47 patents. These included: Brightening and stabilizing the color of metal salts of naphthene and ethylhexanic acids and their solutions (1957–1960); lead storage battery with solidified electrolyte and process of making same (1963–64); galvanic cell with solid fluoride ion-conductive electrolyte (1975–1976); and polyacetylene cell with ceramic solid electrolyte (1983–1985).

His work was reported in 54 papers published in various prestigious scientific journals. In one early paper he reported with H. Bode his discovery of α-PbO2 in Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie, Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie 60 (1956): 1053. α-PbO2 is distinguished from the α-PbO2 modification by its capacity and lifetime.

Practically he dealt with phosphoric acid additives for lead acid batteries. Together with August Winsel he developed the “Kugelhaufen Modell” (aggregate-of-spheres model) of the PbO2-PbSO4 electrode, explaining the capacity dependence on currents and additives on a theoretical basic.

In 1985 he was elected to work as an expert on batteries and fuel cells for the Commission of the European Communities, Directorate XII, in Brussels. In 1987 Voss collaborated with Hiroshi Shimotake as general editor of Progress in Batteries and Solar Cells. He also worked on the editorial board of the Journal of Power Sources.

Voss retired from VARTA Batterie in September, 1988, after 33 years with the company. He continued to work for VARTA as consultant until 1993 and was, among others, responsible for scientific grants of the Herbert-QuandtStiftung der VARTA.

During this time he was still active in attending international battery conferences. During the LABAT meeting in 1989, Voss was selected to become the first recipient of the prestigious Gaston Planté Medal, awarded by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.