Firefly: Time to get the lead out

There are certain things I’ve taken for granted for a long time, like batteries. I pretty much assumed the technology that went into them was pretty much the same, no matter the purpose.

There are certain things I’ve taken for granted for a long time, like batteries. I pretty much assumed the technology that went into them was pretty much the same, no matter the purpose. Boy, did I get an education last week during an informational interview with Firefly Energy.

Firefly, based in Peoria, Illinois, actually was spun out of Caterpillar so that it could concentrate on research and development for lead acid batteries. We’re talking the industrial kind that go into all-terrain vehicles, trucks, automotive starter batteries, forklifts, cell phone towers or the uninterruptible power supplies you might use in your data center.

Lead-acid, apparently, has pretty much been taken for granted in recent years. Their upside is that they’ve been cheap, safe and reliable. But they are also darn heavy (some of these things weigh up to 800 pounds).

Firefly Energy CEO Ed Williams says his company’s mission is to remove up to 75 percent of the lead that’s traditionally been included in these things, getting rid of materials that aren’t so great for humans or the environment while dramatically improving performance. “It’s our belief that lead-acid chemistry has not been engineered to its full potential,” Williams says.

Nickel metal hydride and lithium batteries, by comparison, have been engineered much farther along their potential performance curve, according to Williams.

Dave Smith, who joined Firefly this summer as vice president of product development, says the first-generation of new batteries that Firefly is working on could last up to three times longer than existing lead acid designs. They’ll also be lighter.

The first design Firefly plans to test, starting this fall, is a product intended for use in highway trucks. The company hopes to release its first commercial product next June, Williams said. Aside from selling its own branded products, Firefly will also do design work for giants in the battery world, Smith says.

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