Industry is experiencing a move from VRLA (valve regulated lead–acid) batteries, which have been used in data centres for decades, to lithium-ion battery technology. And why not? The benefits are clear: smaller, lighter and a longer lifespan.
What’s not so well known is lithium-ion batteries’ impact on sustainability when compared to their older VRLA counterparts.
That said, it’s important to take one step back. It’s essential to note that despite the myriad benefits that come with lithium-ion batteries, not all users will move to this newest iteration in battery technology. As a storage technology, lithium-ion is far superior to traditional VRLA batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have undoubtedly matured in the last decade and, coupled with a far more attractive price point, their adoption will see significant inroads in the near future. It is now at a point where various industries and subsequent applications can adopt lithium-ion as its storage option of choice.
As mentioned, it is particularly the data centre industry and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) applications that are set to benefit the most from lithium-ion batteries.
Looking closer to home, the African continent is set to benefit immensely from the technology. Stable utility power is a major issue in various parts of the continent and erratic supply means UPSs don’t have enough time to recharge their batteries.
This is where lithium-ion batteries come into their own, as they not only lose very little charge when not in use, but also take a fraction of the time to charge again.
In a nutshell, lithium-ion batteries offer the following important benefits:
• A smaller footprint and lighter weight, which are important when space comes at a premium.
• A longer expected lifespan compared to VRLA’s service life of between three and six years. Lithium-ion batteries can offer anything between 12 and 15 years of service. The battery refresh cycle is therefore significantly longer.
• They can tolerate higher operating temperatures compared to VRLA and emit far less thermal energy.
And the environment?
Considering the above, it’s clear that lithium-ion batteries offer considerable TCO benefits, however, the sustainability gains are also significant. For one, their lifespan alone makes them ‘greener’. Lithium-ion batteries do not contain hazardous materials while lead-acid batteries do; both options are recyclable. In Africa, the recycling of lithium-ion batteries needs to be looked at urgently and prioritised.
Looking at longevity we must consider the entire lifecycle, from acquisition of the raw materials, energy usage in manufacturing and transportation, to the use and maintenance of batteries, which includes operating temperature and charging.
If you consider the first two points – raw materials and energy usage in transportation – these are similar across the two battery technologies, although lithium-ion edges out VRLA due to its lighter weight.
On the last two points: lithium-ion can tolerate higher operating temperatures and certainly requires less energy to cool. However, this benefit is somewhat negated as lithium-ion batteries require battery management systems to ensure safe operation. This means the two options, in terms of energy usage, are neck and neck depending on the circumstances.
The only guy on the block?
Lithium-ion batteries will not completely phase out VRLA batteries. Their adoption will depend on a number of factors, primarily companies’ buy-in and confidence in moving to this energy storage technology. Lithium-ion as a compound is not brand new and has been a part of our lives in many different forms such as power tools, toys, mobile phones and other gadgets. Now the UPS industry is also embracing this technology.
Overall, it’s an exciting time for data centres and particularly the UPS industry; it is one of the most significant technology changes in years. Lithium-ion batteries bring something totally new to the industry.
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