What are the reasons for the comparatively high prices of nickel-iron batteries?
January 8, 2009 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Pound for pound, megajoule for megajoule, why are nickel-iron (NiFe, Edison, etc) batteries so expensive as compared to others?

Obviously, economies of scale play into it: I can only find them manufactured in China and Australia. I'm sure nickel isn't free. But, still, these batteries seem enormously expensive in comparison to others.

Aside from a simple demonstration cell, is it possible for a home tinkerer to make a reliable, practical nickel-iron battery whose performance, reliability, and durability is somewhat near to that of these very pricey imports, without approaching their cost?
posted by adipocere to Science & Nature (6 answers total)
From reading the wikipedia article on them I would imagine that most of it is a question of economies of scale. It sounds like they're not very popular anymore and it's definitely the case for other products I've used that there is a huge premium paid for purchasing low volume items.
posted by pombe at 9:59 AM on January 8, 2009

According to Wiki: Its use has declined due to low specific energy, poor charge retention, and poor low-temperature performance, and its high cost of manufacture compared with the lead-acid battery. Nickel is currently about ten times the cost of lead. The market seems to have decided that lead-acid batteries are generally more cost effective for most applications. You're left with a few specialized applications where nickel-iron is still the better choice.

Here's an interesting discussion on DIY batteries, including a link to a publisher that might have some reprints of old books on the topic. If you can manage to get your hands on old phone company surplus batteries that might work. But battery technology isn't rocket science, at least not the basics: two different metals and an electrolyte. I suspect it will be hard to get performance approaching commercial batteries but you should at least be able to have some fun with it.
posted by 6550 at 10:17 AM on January 8, 2009

Or what pombe said.
posted by 6550 at 10:17 AM on January 8, 2009

It sounds like there isn't a lot of pressure to innovate on nickle-iron batteries. They have high material costs compared to their competitors, and there is at best a handful of producers. The one Chinese producer I found has been making them for two decades and using production equipment imported from Germany, probably when the German company stopped manufacturing them themselves.

Given all that, I'd guess that they aren't applying materials science to come up with better electrodes and I wonder how much innovation they've done to cut the amount of materials required per cell.

So, the home tinkerer might be able to come up with something that approaches the performance of the commercial batteries. You may even be able to keep costs down by avoiding investing in expensive shop equipment if you can find a shop that specializes in doing short-run fabrication of metal (and plastic) parts. But its still going to take research, which will take time, and trial and error, which will take time and money. I doubt it will be cost effective unless you treat your R&D costs as hobby costs, and only assign your materials and costs for outside work to the cost of the product.
posted by Good Brain at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I noticed that the Chinese firm bought the technology from the German company some time back. I've been all over the online sources and had hoped that I had just missed something simple, perhaps a variant name I had overlooked, or a startup that decided to make them.

It looks like I'll be buying a battery and dissecting it for reverse engineering, while also researching modern battery design for applicable improvements I could incorporate. Bummer.
posted by adipocere at 11:26 AM on January 8, 2009

Out of curiosity I'd appreciate it if you'd let us know if you figure out anything with those batteries, particularly DIY. A long-term dream of mine is to have an off-the-grid house so cost effective batteries are a specific interest.
posted by 6550 at 7:23 PM on January 8, 2009

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