Axion Power International is an advanced lead-acid battery company that started in Toronto but found it too expensive. As a result, it high-tailed it to Pennsylvania where the incentives were better and the cost of operation cheap. (More on that later)

These days, Axion is doing just fine. The company announced today that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Georgia-based Exide Technologies, which will become Axion’s principle OEM customer as part of a multi-year global partnership. Exide is a major battery manufacturer and recycler, and Axion has done a great job evolving the performance of lead-acid batteries. In fact, what it has done is hybridized lead-acid chemistry — the negative electrodes normally found in lead-acid batteries have been replaced with nanoporous carbon electrodes found in many advanced supercapacitors.

With this enhancement, Axion claims its battery system can survive at least three times longer than conventional lead-acid batteries designed for deep discharge cycling. It also claims higher power delivery, faster recharge time, less weight and lower maintenance. And while a lot of people poo-poo lead-acid chemistry because it contains bad stuff, let’s keep in mind that 99 per cent of lead-acid batteries get recycled through a mature recycling network, unlike newer chemistries. “It is the best recycled product on the face of the planet,” according to one Axion executive.

Even so, Axion, like others pursuing lead-acid advancements, is often overshadowed by newer, sexier battery chemistries. But the company is of the belief there will be a need for lower cost batteries that do a good enough job for a number of targeted applications, including electric/hybrid vehicles, renewable-energy storage, and a variety of grid-management scenarios.

“We believe our batteries can compete with the more expensive and exotic battery chemistries,” said Tom Granville, Axion’s CEO, in a statement. “In the end, our relatively low cost, when compared to the battery chemistries that appear to dominate today’s headlines, along with our ease of integration into existing manufacturing lines, will be telling advantages when novelty wears thin and cost-consciousness and practicality move center stage.”

He may have a point. I wouldn’t rule out lead-acid just yet. Axion, if its relationship with Exide proves fruitful, could find itself landing on an energy-storage sweet spot.

BTW, here’s the background to why Axion left Toronto. Edward Buiel, the company’s chief technical officer, told me during an interview in January 2008 that Axion needed to move from R&D company to manufacturer. It discovered it could purchase an entire, fully functional lead-acid battery manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania for just $800,000 — the kind of distressed asset typically found in the struggling Rust Belt. By comparison, to build a similar facility in Toronto would take up to three years and cost $10 million. Buiel also said the cost of living in New Castle, Penn., was quite low. “I bought a three-storey townhouse on a golf course for $100,000,” said Buiel. “When looking in Toronto, to get anything for just half a million dollars I had to look at a massive commute through a lot of farmland on Highway 400.”

The man has a point.

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