The Edison Nickel Iron Cell...Outlasts Lead Acid Batteries by Decades!
Categories: Power Solutions
Swedish inventor Waldemar Jungner had invented the nickel-cadmium battery in 1899. Jungner experimented with substituting iron for the cadmium in varying proportions, including 100% iron. Jungner had already discovered that the main advantage over the nickel-cadmium chemistry was cost, but due to the poorer efficiency of the charging reaction, Jungner never patented the iron version of his battery.
The nickel iron battery was developed by Thomas Edison in 1901, and used as the energy source for electric vehicles, such as the Detroit Electric and Baker Electric. Edison claimed the nickel-iron design to be, "far superior to batteries using lead plates and acid" (lead-acid battery). Both Edison and Ford worked together on electric cars prior to the World War One.
Jungner's work was largely unknown in the US until the 1940s, when nickel-cadmium batteries went into production there. A 50 volt nickel-iron battery was the main power supply in the World War II German V2 rocket (together with two 16 volt accumulators which powered the four gyroscopes), with a smaller version used in the V1 flying bomb. (viz. 1946 Operation Backfire blueprints.)
1912 Detroit Electric Car with NiFe Battery
Several early car manufacturers offered nickel iron batteries at the turn of the 20th century. NiFe batteries were a more expensive option and most of these cars owned by collectors such as Jay Leno still contain functioning NiFe storage batteries constructed prior to World War One. The Royal BC Museum in Canada contains a working car as does the BC Hydro museum.
Nickel Iron Battery Still Functioning after almost 100 years
Manufacturing from 1903
Edison's batteries were made from about 1903 to 1972 by the Edison Battery Storage Company located in East Orange, NJ. They were quite profitable for the company. In 1972 the battery company was sold to the Exide Battery Corporation, which discontinued making the battery in 1975. The Eagle-Picher Company of the UK advertised in 1970 a nickel iron car battery that would "last as long as all the cars you own in a lifetime". They purchased the cells for their battery from Edison's company. They also proposed their application in all electric vehicles in the early 1990s. Perhaps this was the stimulus to bury the Edison Storage Battery Company. No one really knows why the Exide Battery Company killed the technology in North America by 1975.
It is interesting to note that all railways from 1910 to 1965 or so used nickel iron batteries in the caboose to run all the lights on the train. Yet technical literature on batteries such as Audel's New Electric Library only mention lead acid batteries starting in 1945. It is even erased in Audel's guide from the section on the history of batteries. So it would appear that nickel iron battery knowledge was no longer being published in technical guildebooks by the end of the second world war. Yet V2 rockets during the second world war were nickel iron battery powered. The reason for this disappearance from the technical literature is a mystery.
Edison was disappointed that his battery was not adopted for starting internal combustion engines and that electric vehicles went out of production only a few years after his battery was introduced. He actually developed the battery to be the battery of choice for electric vehicles which were the preferred transportation mode in the early 1900s (followed by gasoline and steam). Edison's batteries had a significantly higher energy density than the lead acid batteries in use at the time, and could be charged in half the time, however they performed poorly at low ambient temperatures. The battery enjoyed wide use for railroad signalling, fork lift, and standby power applications. By simply changing the electrolyte to a higher concentration of KOH the modern manufacturers have achieved low temperature operation. In situations where a lead acid uncharged battery might suffer freezing damage, a nickel iron battery will not be damaged at all.
There are now USA, Chinese and Russian manufacturers of NiFe batteries. Nickel-iron cells are currently made with capacities from 5 Ah to 1000 Ah. Many of the original manufacturers no longer make nickel iron cells but new manufacturers started appearing in the last 20 years.
Nickel-iron batteries do not have the lead or cadmium of the lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries, which makes them a lesser burden on human and ecological health. There are in use for solar homes today mainly in Australia.
Example Chicago USA Off Grid with Nickel Iron Batteries (some from 1930s and still ticking!)
Example Canadian Solar Home with Nickel Iron Storage
700 Watts of Solar Panels
200 Amp Hour Nickel Iron Cell
Maximum Power Point Controller set to Nickel Iron
Nickel Iron Battery Bank in Garden Shed