Ecoult’s lead-acid UltraBattery is being tested in the harsh heat of India for its potential to wean the world off diesel.

Enduring solutions prove themselves under tough conditions. If Ecoult’s UltraBattery can cut the dependence on diesel in rural India, where it is being tested by the Institute for Transformative Technologies, then it may be able to do the same in Africa and South-East Asia.

“Today diesel is a fuel of convenience,” says Ecoult CEO John Wood. “Tomorrow it could be the fuel of last resort.”

There are half a million diesel generators in India and millions of litres of diesel are also used each day to power mobile communications stations around the world.

Try this at home

Ecoult’s smaller-scale ambitions are embodied in its 28kWh UltraFlex unit, which houses 16 UltraBatteries. At 2m tall and more than 1.1 tonnes, the UltraFlex is big. The storage solution is suited for commercial, small-industrial, microgrid systems and large residential. “They are going out with installers,” Wood says. A North American launch is planned for later this year.

The Indian trial isn’t the first time the UltraBattery – developed by the CSIRO with $583,780 in ARENA support – has been put to the test.

In 2014, Ecoult began a project to reduce diesel use on an off-grid telecommunication base station near Sydney, and in the United States it took part in two Department of Energy demonstration projects: a 1MW solar-and-storage project in New Mexico, to look at voltage smoothing and peak shifting, and a 1MW frequency regulation project in Pennsylvania. “We did a lot of work in the megawatt scale,” says Wood (pictured).

The battery’s unique chemistry – the legacy of now-retired CSIRO scientist Dr Lan Lam – is the key to its staunch performance in harsh conditions.

“Dr Lam recognized that by forming the ultracapacitor on the surface of the lead-acid battery he could change the crystal morphologically and the behavior of the battery chemistry,” Wood says. “What he created was a lead-acid chemistry that could operate continuously in partial state of charge.”

Never let up

It was a leap forward, because a battery operated in partial state of charge won’t suffer secondary degradation and will be able to manage high temperatures. (The battery is being tested in temperatures up to 50°C.)

In February ARENA committed a further $4.1 million in recoupable funding for Ecoult to enhance and fully commercialise the UltraBattery.

Wood says the UltraBattery is destined to make a big difference to power supply in parts of the globe where the climate is harsh and electricity infrastructure is inadequate – and where the game is to ween the world off diesel.

“Ecoult’s mission is energy storage for a cleaner planet,” Wood says. “Frankly, when you really get down to it, if you want to reduce diesel emissions or reduce emissions the best way you can use storage is to complement generating assets to make them more efficient.”

The technology proved itself early when tested at a remote telecommunications tower in Australia where the battery was charged for an hour at the peak operating efficiency of the diesel operator and then discharged for four to six hours, again and again and again. “The UltraBattery is exceptionally good at doing that, and that is what is needed in those applications.”

Diesel consumption at the site was halved.

Before the UltraBattery came along, Wood says no-one would have considered lead-acid technology for some of the applications it’s been tested in, such as frequency regulation, high-voltage-rate smoothing and energy shifting. “In all the applications we’ve done we’ve basically matched any other technology.”

US battery giant East Penn bought Ecoult in 2010 and pays royalties to the CSIRO on sales of UltraBattery. Ecoult’s team of 38 engineers in Australia is expected to top 45 by year’s end, Wood says. “Our vision is that UltraBattery will be produced worldwide.”

“Yes, we compete against other technologies, but the strength of our technology is that it is very strong where you have variability in the environment, whether that variability is in the way it’s used, or in the temperature.”

In February Ecoult announced a partnership with Exide Industries, the largest battery manufacturer in India, resulting in the manufacture and distribution of the UltraBattery throughout India and South Asia.

The partnership will see Australian R&D play a critical role in India’s renewable energy storage program, the company said, supporting variable power needs in its hot climate and providing clean power to both off and on grid sites.