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Berks County battery makers foresee bright future

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EnerSys headquarters in Bern Township.
PHOTO/SUBMITTED EnerSys headquarters in Bern Township.

As worldwide demand for batteries grows, EnerSys and East Penn Manufacturing Co., two of the world’s largest battery makers, are expanding research and development.

The two companies, both headquartered in Berks County, are exploring lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries for a variety of applications including telecommunications, electric vehicles and back-up power to electric grids.

Lead-acid batteries comprised 90 percent of the $65 billion battery market in 2016, but lithium-ion batteries are a fast-growing segment, propelled by interest in electric vehicles, according to a report by Avicenne Energy, a technology consulting firm.

At a recent energy summit held by Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, representatives from EnerSys and East Penn spoke about some of the projects their companies are pursuing.

EnerSys produces lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries at its headquarters in Bern Township and in 31 factories around the world. For the quarter ended July, the company posted net earnings of $11.3 million on sales of $670.9 million, according to filings with the U.S. Securites and Exchange Commission.

The company, which has 9,400 employees, expects to be expanding in three segments: reserve power, motive or material handling power, which is used in forklifts and trains; and in aerospace and defense, said Khaled Bahei-eldin, director of engineering for energy storage systems at EnerSys.

About 250 employees are researching lithium-ion production systems in a 100,000-square-foot lab at the new EnerSys Global Technology Center, next to its headquarters. The center opened in April in a building that was formerly occupied by Teleflex, the medical device maker.

Although EnerSys does not manufacture the battery packs that go into electric vehicles, the company is interested in supplying the batteries that back up the power grid, which will face greater demand when there are more electric vehicles.

“You can strategically deploy [back-up] batteries to charge basically during the day when there’s lower times of demand and then discharge during the evening hours locally, without having to put stress on the distribution infrastructure to charge those vehicles,” Bahei-eldin he said.

Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly being used as back-up storage to power grids, which can be vulnerable during natural disasters, which he said are occurring more frequently.

The growing use of forklifts in warehouse distribution centers also is providing a growing market for lithium-ion batteries. A majority of forklifts already are electric and the number is increasing, Bahei-eldin said.

“As battery technology has improved, especially with lithium, the ability of batteries to accept fast charge means less operating expenses and less down time when you’re using lithium-energy storage, as well as high cycle life,” he said.

Developing countries may be another market for lithium batteries as a way to store power generated from solar panels.

Bruce Cole, senior vice president of sales at East Penn Manufacturing Co., based in Lyon Station, said the disposal of lithium-ion batteries is “a question mark,” and recycling methods are still being sought. They contain cobalt, a metal that can be recycled, and a number of other solvents and materials that often end up in landfills.

East Penn operates the largest, lead-acid battery manufacturing facility in the world. Formerly known as Deka, East Penn is a private, family-owned company founded in 1946. Today, the company operates in 85 locations and has 10,000 employees, of which 8,000 work in Lyon Station.

Lead-acid batteries are used in trains, cars, trucks, boats and motorcycles, as well in wheelchairs and forklifts. They also provide backup power for data centers and telecommunications.

East Penn’s focus is on the U.S. and North American markets, with major market segments in automotive (it makes about 40 million automotive batteries a year), material handling and reserve power backup systems.

The company recently opened the Breidegam Miksiewicz Innovation Center in Kutztown, where its research and development team focuses on new markets and applications, particularly in lead-acid batteries. The facility has the capability to work on developing other technologies as well, including lithium ion batteries.

“The energy storage market is new and developing,” Cole said.

Traditionally, customers tell East Penn the type of product they need, Cole said, but developments in energy storage are so new that companies often are unaware of how new technologies can help them, Cole said.

“In this market, we’re kind of having to go to customers and say, ‘Hey, you need this,” Cole said.

“The economics and the duty cycles on the batteries can be fairly complex,” he said.

East Penn has been focused on some projects based on lead-acid chemistry with a government-affiliated research laboratory in Australia over the last six years. And the company owns a technology startup based in Sydney called Ecoult, which designs lead-acid batteries that back-up power grids or supplement power sources that rely on fossil fuels, thereby reducing carbon emissions.

In one project, for example, the company was able to cut a power system’s use of diesel by half.

Ecoult designs energy storage systems to improve energy efficiency, but also to make them more reliable, safe and renewable so that blackouts can be avoided, particularly in remote and underdeveloped areas.

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