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Old 21st Jan 2021, 9:25 am   #1
rontech
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Default Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

In the post war period, the ex government stores had rechargeable batteries for sale.

I cannot recall what they were called but had one electrode made of nickel and I think, a caustic soda ( v strongly alkaline ) electrolyte.

They had the advantage of being virtually indestructable with respect to over charging and short circuiting. Often sold made up in groups, within a wooden case giving 24 volts in total.

Anyone have info?
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 9:31 am   #2
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

NiFe cells I suspect. We had them at school in the 60s for powering the bench terminals in the physics rooms.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 9:57 am   #3
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

I would concur. You could get a special system for providing HT to battery radios, you could switch the cells in series - parallel to charge from 12v then to series to provide HT of somewhere around 90 -120v.

They are as you say almost indestructible, the disadvantages are weight, size and cost, each cell only delivers 1.2 volts I believe (please correct me if I'm wrong) so you need a lot of cells.

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Old 21st Jan 2021, 9:58 am   #4
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Certainly the Wikipedia entry is a pretty good match to your description, albeit with potassium (rather than sodium) hydroxide as the electrolite.

Apparently, each cell produced 1.2V on load, so your 24V battery would require 20 cells.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 10:03 am   #5
barrymagrec
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Chunky items in individual wooden crates, as I remember.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 10:29 am   #6
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

They seem to be making a small come-back for things like solar storage, mainly because they can be expected to last for decades in spite of total abuse.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 11:39 am   #7
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Our chemistry teacher told us NiFe cells were used to power milk floats.

[Our school had an old, ex-Unigate milk float in about 1990, used by the maintenance guys to cart materials and tools around. It got converted into a "helipcopter" by painting it camouflage and fitting hand-cranked wooden rotor to the roof, for some CCF display on Commemoration Day! Then back to normal duty on Monday.]
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 11:59 am   #8
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

The other disadvantage of them is their high self discharge rate.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 12:01 pm   #9
rontech
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Thanks for all the replies. NiFe was the word I could not remember.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 5:08 pm   #10
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Yes, NiFe cells: apart from milk-floats the other place they were commonplace was in electric fork-lift-trucks. A place I used to visit sometimes had a fleet of these, a battery-charge only lasted half a day but they had twice as many batteries as trucks and a neat mechanism for swapping batteries during the drivers' lunch-breaks: the batteries were fitted in a sort of pallet. Cunning thing was, it used another fork-lift-truck to take the old battery out and slot the new one in! Time to swap batteries was a couple of minutes per truck.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 5:49 pm   #11
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Also used on boats.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 6:16 pm   #12
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Invented more than a century ago. I have a 1940's book on accumulator charging that describes their construction and charging requrements in some detail. Confusingly, at the time, the corresponding nickle-cadmium types of similar construction were sold under the trade name NIFE.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 6:33 pm   #13
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Also called the EDISON battery. Nickel-Iron electrodes (hence NiFe), used in Harrods delivery vans, but mostly replaced by Lead-Acid in milk floats from the late '40s onwards.
Popular in railway Signal & Telegraph installations, usually in glass jars.
Caustic Potash is the electrolyte.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 6:36 pm   #14
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

These or very similar batteries are still made.
They tend to be very expensive, but are indeed long lasting and resistant to abuse.

Drawbacks include wide voltage variation between charge and discharge, relatively high self discharge, and also they do not respond to a very slow charge.

One amp into a five hundred ampere hour lead acid battery will eventually charge it.
One amp into a similar size nickel iron or nickel cadmium battery will do nothing.

After prolonged use, the potassium hydroxide electrolyte reacts with carbon dioxide from the air to form potassium carbonate which impairs operation.
If this happens the electrolyte must be replaced.
Some cells have a layer of oil floating on the electrolyte to keep it away from the air.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 6:48 pm   #15
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

CIE, the national transport company in Ireland used them extensively in buses in the 60's and 70's. One thing I was told will kill them is reverse current. I have seen a set in a bus that had not been started in 30 years come up enough to re-start the bus after half an hour's tick over, they can obviously take serious abuse.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 7:10 pm   #16
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Quote:
Originally Posted by broadgage View Post
One amp into a five hundred ampere hour lead acid battery will eventually charge it.
One amp into a similar size nickel iron or nickel cadmium battery will do nothing.
True but it works the other way too:

100 Amps into a 500 Amp Hour lead-acid will kill it rather rapidly.
100 Amps into the same capacity NiFe will only make it get a bit warm.

The place-with-the-forklifts I mentioned upthread had a big rotary converter to convert 3-phase mains to DC for charging, along with a classic "Dr. Frankenstein's Lab"-style set of verdigris-encrusted brass-cased meters, rheostats, manual motor-starters, open-frame cut-outs and the like. All rather impressive to a 17-year-old!

Quote:
Originally Posted by broadgage View Post
Some cells have a layer of oil floating on the electrolyte to keep it away from the air.
I remember that - also about how you needed rather different hydrometers to measure the s.g. of the electrolyte in NiFE cells and Lead-Acids.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 7:12 pm   #17
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

The usual recommendation for open cells is to replace the caustic electrolyte every 2 years. The electrodes seem to go on forever.

I believe that prewar NIFE ( nickle-cadmium) batteries used to cost about twice as much as a lead-acid battery of the same capacity. When I made enquiries at a battery manufacturer's stand at a electrical exhibition in the late 1980's, it transpired that they then cost 10 times as much. I had contemplated getting one for running the lights in my campervan, but at that price it was cheaper to get a new conventional one every few years.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 7:39 pm   #18
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Dug out my 1942 book. The recommended electrolyte replacement interval then was 12 months. While the nickle-iron (Edison) cells needed a minimum charging current, it eas possible to trickle-charge the "NIFE" nickle-cadmium (Jungner) ones. Apparently the reason why these alkaline batteries can deliver high currents without losing capacity is that the caustic electrolyte plays no part in the chemical reaction. Conversely, a lead-acid battery intended to provide high discharge current needs a large volume of electrolyte to compensate for the voltage fall-off caused by progressive dilution of the acid during discharge. The 1950's Odhams "Radio Television and Electrical Repairs" advises caustic electrolyte replacement at one, and no longer than 2, years.
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Old 21st Jan 2021, 11:21 pm   #19
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Default Re: Vintage alternative to lead acid batteries

Some members may be familiar with the Royal Observer Corps emergency bunkers that were built in the cold war.
Detailed discussion is off topic here, but I think that it is permitted to note that these bunkers were equipped with a ten cell alkaline battery of 12 volts nominal.
For basic lighting, with the more important posts having two batteries.

No mains supply was available, the battery was charged from a small petrol generator.

Alkaline batteries were selected instead of the much cheaper lead acid types due to being robust and abuse resistant.
I know of one such battery salvaged and still working fine, after about 50 years.
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