Varsity launches SA’s second battery-testing facility as research on energy storage advances

5th September 2014 By: Anine Kilian - Contributing Editor Online

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) has launched a battery-testing facility to research the local production of energy storage solutions for advanced lead-acid batteries, which are currently only produced overseas and are imported by automotive manufacturers and are costly to replace.

The facility is the second independent battery-testing laboratory of its kind in the country, the other being the South African Bureau of Standards.

In addition to the conventional testing of commercial lead-acid batteries, which ensures that the battery in a new car, or a replacement battery, complies with the minimum requirements of specified performance, NMMU’s laboratory will also pioneer national research into new battery technology that will include the testing of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

“We are the first laboratory in South Africa that will be equipped to do lithium-ion battery testing. Lithium-ion battery compliance testing is not a simple thing. Owing to the nature of the battery and the chemicals involved in its manufacturing, a testing facility must meet stringent safety requirements,” says NMMU battery electro- chemistry expert Professor Ernst Ferg.

He adds that when the performance of these batteries is tested under extreme conditions of temperature, or when damaged or punctured during a simulated accident, every precaution needs to be taken to ensure that the resulting fires can be safely extinguished.
Also in the pipeline at the laboratory is battery testing and research for the renewable energy field. This includes off-the-grid energy storage, and standalone traffic lights, streetlights and electric vehicle charging stations.

The laboratory is linked to the university’s Uyilo e-mobility programme, which focuses on national electric vehicle research and development (R&D) and is run by NMMU’s engineering technology institute, eNtsa.

“When government gave NMMU the go-ahead to establish the Uyilo e-mobility programme, it was decided to include the battery testing laboratory, as batteries are a key component of electric vehicles,” said Ferg.
The lab has been set up to conduct standard and specialised simulated battery testing, according to various international battery manufacturers’ and users’ criteria, in collaboration with the local automotive industry. The lab is also conducting R&D with the local battery- manufacturing industry.

“With the ever-increasing competitiveness of the automotive industry, the demand for components suppliers to comply with stringent specifications is increasing. In addition, imported components for the local industry are increasing. To be able to compete, local manufacturers need to provide new battery types that adhere to a range of international testing standards, in the shortest possible time, and be able to make these batteries cost effective within their manufacturing environment,” he notes.

The lab’s testing equipment includes a 16-channel 100 A 18 V tester and a high-rate 2 000 A discharge tester with four temperature- controlled water baths and a freezer unit to allow for variable temperature testing. It also has a battery vibrational tester that can evaluate a battery’s performance under a simulated vibrational frequency typically experienced in a driven car.
By early next year, several more testing units will have been installed to allow for higher - voltage testing and bidirectional testing.