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Lithium-ion batteries – a new dawn in sustainable storage optimisation

South Africa

26/08/2022

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By George Senzere, solutions architect, Secure Power at Schneider Electric

Industry is definitely experiencing a move from VRLA (valve regulated lead–acid) batteries, which have been used in data centres for decades, to lithium-ion battery technology.  And why not, the benefits are clear: smaller, lighter and a longer lifespan.

What’s not so well known is lithium-ion batteries’ impact on sustainability when compared to its older VRLA counterparts.

That being said, it’s important to take one step back.  It’s essential to note that despite the myriad of benefits that come with lithium-ion batteries, not all users will move to this newest iteration in battery technology.

As a storage technology, lithium-ion is far more superior than the traditional VRLA acid batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have undoubtedly matured in the last decade and coupled with a far more attractive price point; its adoption will make significant inroads in the near future.  It is now at a point where various industries and subsequent applications can adopt lithium-ion as its storage option of choice.

As mentioned, it is particularly the datacentre industry and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) applications that are set to benefit the most from lithium-ion batteries.

Looking closer to home, the African continent is set to benefit immensely from the technology. Stable utility power is major issue in various parts of the continent and erratic supply means UPSs don’t have enough to time recharge their batteries.

This is where lithium-ion batteries come into its own as it not only loses very little charge – when not in use - but also takes a fraction of the time to charge again.

In a nutshell, lithium-ion batteries offer the following important benefits:

  • A smaller footprint and lightweight that are important when space comes at premium.
  • It offers a longer expected lifespan compared to VRLA’s service life of between three and six years.  Lithium-ion batteries can offer anything between twelve and fifteen years of service. The battery refresh cycle is therefore significantly longer.
  • It can tolerate higher operation temperatures compared to VRLA and emits far less thermal heat.

And the environment?

Considering the above, it’s clear that lithium-ion battery offer considerable TCO benefits however its sustainability gains are also significant.  For one, its lifespan alone makes it “greener”.

Lithium-ion batteries do not contain hazardous materials while lead-acid batteries do; both options are recyclable. In Africa, the recycling of lithium-ion batteries need to be urgently looked at and prioritised.

Looking at its longevity, we have to consider the entire lifecycle from acquisition of the raw materials, energy usage in manufacturing and transportation, use and maintenance of batteries which include operating temperature and charging.

If you consider the first two points, raw materials and energy usage in transportation, these are similar between the two battery technologies, although, lithium-ion edges out VRLA due to its lighter weight.

The last two points; lithium-ion can tolerate higher operating temperatures, and certainly requires less energy to cool it.  However, this benefit is somewhat negated as lithium-ion batteries require battery management systems to ensure safe operations. This means the two options’ energy usage are neck and neck, depending on the circumstances.

 

The only guy on the block?

Lithium-ion batteries will not completely phase-out VRLA batteries. Its adoption will depend on a number of factors, primarily companies’ buy-in and confidence to moving to the storage technology.

Lithium-ion as a compound is not brand new and has been a part of our lives in many different forms such as power tools, toys, mobile phones and other gadget. Now the UPS industry is also embracing this technology.

Overall, its’ an exciting time for datacentres and particularly the UPS industry; it is one of the most significant technology changes in years. Lithium-ion batteries bring something totally new to the industry.

South Africa

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