The economic phenomenon that is China has added another benchmark to its burgeoning inventory of superlatives. It has become the world’s largest manufacturer of car batteries and in doing so has established itself as the lead industry’s most important player.
Only 25 years ago, China produced just 200,000 tonnes of lead a year. Today, that figure has rocketed to more than 3.6 million tonnes, making it the biggest producer on the planet and dwarfing the production of the second biggest lead producer, America, which last year produced 1.2 million tonnes. Indeed, the combined tonnage of the nine countries that follow China in the production chart barely match the Chinese figure.
And with 85 per cent of global lead production going into lead-acid batteries, Chinese battery manufacturers are currently enjoying an unprecedented boom time. Vehicle sales in China rocketed by a staggering 45 per cent in 2009 to more than 13.6 million, each one of them requiring a lead-acid battery that can account for up to 10kg of lead for passenger cars and much more for trucks.
This boom would appear to be very much in its infancy. Private car ownership in China currently stands at around 25 per 1,000 head of population, while America heads the world league at around 820 per 1,000 and in Western Europe and Japan the figure is 500-600 per 1,000. Yet China is also the largest car maker in the world with 21 manufacturers in the list of top 50 global car builders. Add to that the fact that the country’s economy — already the second biggest in the world at $1.337 trillion in 2009 — is forecast to grow at the rate of 7.5 per cent a year and shares in a Chinese lead-acid battery maker suddenly seem a very attractive proposition.
As cars become more sophisticated and acquire more and more electrical gadgets, so they require more powerful batteries to operate them. More power means more lead.
And then, of course, there is the hybrid vehicle, the development of which has become a priority for many car manufacturers as the price of oil continues its upward trend and the clamour for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions grows louder. This drive for greater fuel efficiency and a reduced dependency on fossil fuels has already seen great strides in the production of hybrid vehicles, many of which use both an internal combustion engine and an electric power train.
These dual-power vehicles are commonly grouped as micro-hybrids, mild-hybrids, medium-hybrids and full-hybrids.
Micro-hybrid technology is already a standard fitment in some cars. It involves a system which allows the car’s electronics to switch off the engine when the vehicle is at rest at, say, traffic lights or in heavy traffic. When the accelerator is depressed, a powerful lead-acid battery restarts the engine, increasing fuel efficiency in urban motoring by anything up to 10 per cent. Energy recovered during braking can be used to recharge the battery.
Mild and medium-hybrids go one step further by employing an electric motor to give the internal combustion engine a helping hand at slow speeds or during acceleration, again reducing fuel use. Full-hybrids go further still and allow the vehicle to operate in electric mode only, a particularly useful feature in urban driving where traffic volumes dictate low speeds.
Lead-acid batteries face significant competition in the field of mild, medium and full hybrid vehicles, principally from nickel-metal hydride batteries and the development of lithium-ion batteries. But research by the Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium —comprising over 50 companies with interests in lead and battery production and managed by the American-based International Lead Zinc Research Organisation (ILZRO) — has proved that lead-acid batteries can perform at least as well as the new kids on the block.
In tests a Toyota Prius powered by lead-acid batteries completed 160,000km on a single set of batteries that required no maintenance throughout the entire test period. Although lead-acid batteries are heavier than nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion batteries, they are also considerably cheaper, costing up to 25 times less. Car makers — in China as in anywhere else — will always be attracted by cost savings so the prospects for lead-acid batteries in hybrid cars look highly promising.
Another area in which China is utilising its own lead production is in electric bicycles, an industry which has evolved from nothing 10 years ago to producing around 25 million bikes a year, 90 per cent of which are sold in China. It is estimated that there are more than 120 million electric bikes on the streets of Chinese towns and cities.
Small electric motors, powered by lead-acid batteries, give a boost to pedal-power. However, the demands placed on the battery are so heavy that they frequently need replacing every year, generating a constant demand. Experts estimate that this sector accounts for one million tonnes of lead every year in China alone. And the technology is gaining popularity in other parts of Asia, where economic growth is putting personal transport within the reach of millions of people.
One thing is certain. Whichever route the future of battery-powered transport goes down, the outlook for lead-acid batteries is far from flat.
For more information contact:
Dianne Nott Tel: +44 1565 652074 Mob: +44 7860 272 754
Andrew Leatham Tel: +44 1204 81105 Mob: 07908 657 154
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