The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast: Creating Standards for Lithium Batteries in the Marine Industry

The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast: Creating Standards for Lithium Batteries in the Marine Industry

On this episode of The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, host Dr. Denis Phares welcomes back marine expert Nigel Calder. He shares his insights into the challenges and developments in establishing standards for lithium-ion batteries on boats. After writing the book on boat electrical systems, Nigel Calder now sits on a subcommittee of the ABYC pushing for standards that accommodate the ever-changing landscape of marine technology.  

Navigating Lithium Battery Standards with Marine Expert Nigel Calder

As an esteemed member of the marine community, Nigel Calder has been advocating for standards development with the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) since 2009. With decades of experience with electrical and mechanical systems in boats, Nigel has dedicated his career to learning about the latest boating technology and sharing his knowledge with fellow mariners. Striving to make the electrical energy on his sailboat more cost-effective, safe, and efficient, Nigel is leading the charge to develop standards that allow lithium-ion batteries to power sailors’ lives on the water while giving them peace of mind.

In this episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, Nigel sits down with host Dr. Denis Phares to highlight the need to anticipate emerging technologies and address safety concerns proactively, especially in the context of the dynamic and tinkering nature of boat owners. They discuss their participation on a lithium-ion battery subcommittee of the ABYC, and their work in advocating for standards that allow the widespread use of LiFePO4 batteries in the marine industry. Nigel also expresses optimism for the future with the development of nonflammable solid-state batteries, which could revolutionize energy systems on boats while mitigating safety concerns.

Listen to the full episode or watch the recording on our YouTube channel. Be sure to check Nigel’s updates on the latest boating technology on the BoatHowTo website. 

Podcast Transcript

Denis Phares  0:14 

Welcome to The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. And I’m so happy to welcome back to the podcast, Mr. Nigel Calder. Thanks for coming back.

Nigel Calder  0:21 

Hi Denis, glad to be here.

Denis Phares  0:22 

You kind of came back. We’re kind of still here too. So, I very much enjoyed our last conversation about your crazy stories and your crazy background. I’m going to get a little technical now because both you and I have served on the lithium-ion battery subcommittee for the ABYC. How long have you been on that subcommittee?

Nigel Calder  0:48 

Well, I believe we launched that in 2009. And it’s been a long drawn-out process of pulling teeth to get something onto the books.

Denis Phares  0:58 

Whose idea was it to launch it and why was it launched at that point?

Nigel Calder  1:01 

Well, it’s a long time ago, but I have a hunch I was the one that moved that we do this. One of my roles within the ABYC is to identify emerging technologies and to try and get a little bit ahead of the game in terms of standards development because it takes years to develop a standard. And a minimum is three to five years. So, you need to identify these technologies as soon as you can and then get on top of it. So, I think it was probably my resolution back in 2009.

Denis Phares  1:32 

What was your introduction to lithium-ion batteries for boats?

Nigel Calder  1:36 

Oh, I had been looking at them prior to that just because of the energy density, and high charge rates, and all the other things that we’ll get to talk about, the beneficial features. I’ve been looking at putting them on my own boat to test them, but also, all those early early-generation lithium-ion batteries, the fire issue was already a key issue with people and I wanted to make sure that we had a standard that would address those issues within a marine recreational boating context where the minute you put something on a boat, the boat owners has likely decided to rewire it. And, as you know, you put a lithium-ion battery in a car, you know what the duty cycle and the usage is going to be over the life of the car. You put it in a laptop, it’s the same. You put it in a cell phone. You put it in a boat, and the day after you put it on the boat, the boat owner decides to change something.

Denis Phares  2:31

Yeah, boat owners are tinkerers, absolutely.

Nigel Calder  2:33

Yeah. So, I wanted to make sure we had something in place that would enable us to take advantage of the technology but also would mitigate risk. And also mitigate the harm that boat owners could do to themselves.

Denis Phares  2:45 

Sure. Well, here we are 14 years later, can you describe the progression of that committee and the standards in general?

Nigel Calder  2:52 

It’s been, again, an on and off again process for all that time, and trying to figure out what’s appropriate in terms of requirements. And, in the meantime, the technology is constantly changing. So, you don’t want to put in place a standard that then ends up being a roadblock to some development that we can’t yet see is going to happen. So, in general, the ABYC tries to create what are called performance-based standards, where we don’t say how something should be built, we say what kind of safety standards it needs to comply with. And, in general, the goal is to create a safety-based standard that doesn’t tell somebody how to do something, but tells him what it needs to be able to do in order to be safe. And that’s really hard in the lithium-ion world because it’s changing all the time, as you know more than anybody else.

Denis Phares  3:45 

Well, I think that’s why I was asked to contribute because we as a company at Dragonfly and Battle Born have so many systems out in the field, a lot of it is empirical. We’ve changed things. We’ve changed logic on the BMS, we’ve changed certain design elements because of things that we have seen in the field. And I think that is difficult when you’re trying to make standards that are better going to be applied so widespread, is if you don’t have a lot of empirical data, how do you even come up with such standards?

Nigel Calder  4:13 

Well, one of the things I did from fairly early on was invite various people that I knew in lithium-ion battery business to get them on the committee because it’s not required to be an ABYC member to be on those subcommittees. And, in fact, I was the guy that suggested we invite you onto the committee.

Denis Phares  4:30 

Okay. I actually didn’t even know that. I don’t remember who asked me.

Nigel Calder  4:34 

Yes, I was the one that suggested we invite you. And it turns out that you had a greater depth of technical knowledge than probably anybody else on the committee, which was really valuable, obviously, in terms of developing a standard.

Denis Phares  4:50 

I think that’s what’s funny about lithium-ion batteries, is there’s so much electrochemistry involved in terms of how they perform but also their safety characteristics. It’s not the same as just electrical components. There’s chemistry, there’s flammability, there are chemical reactions that can happen that can be detrimental, not just to the lifecycle of the battery, but to the safety of the overall system.

Nigel Calder  5:18 

Yes. And every time you invite a manufacturer onto the committee, the problem you’ve got is that they obviously have a vested interest in steering something in one direction. So then, we get some really in-depth technical information that none of us qualify to judge. And that’s one of the interesting things about the standards writing process which I’ve observed both in Europe, and in the US. And particularly, in Europe, it’s largely bureaucrats that are in the room that have very little idea about the technical details of what they’re regulating. The really nice thing about the ABYC process is it’s possible to pull in people like yourself. And we invited people from Mastervolt, and from Victron, and from a couple of other lithium-ion battery companies so that we get both the technical knowledge and we also get a spread of industry representation, so that we can kind of balance these things out and come up with a standard that will stand the test of time, basically.

Denis Phares  6:20 

Yeah. There’s a similar setup with the RV industry with the RVIA, where you have all the competing RV companies that come in, they self-regulate, they make the standards. And it’s important that you leave your business sense at home, and you come in and you just try to make standards that maximize safety for the end user.

Nigel Calder  6:38 

Yeah. So, then we have me…

Denis Phares  6:42

Yeah, What are you?

Nigel Calder  6:43

So, ever since I got involved with the ABYC in, I think, 1990, the first edition, if I pulled on this manual, are a bunch of prescriptions in it that violated the ABYC standards. And I got a bunch of snotty letters from ABYC saying, “You can’t do this, and this is not right.” So, I went to an ABYC meeting, I think, in 1990, the Electrical PTC, and there were maybe six people in the room, and nowadays, it is 40 or 50. And I got involved at that point. And that’s when I came across ABYC. And then, I realized the importance of, basically, putting together just general concepts and knowledge with standards-based education, but also they need people like us that have that practical experience to inject that into the standards writing process. So, I’ve always viewed my role in this process as being representing boat owners, and, in particular, cruising boat owners, people who like to go offshores for extended periods of time. That is my core audience.

Denis Phares  7:52 

Yeah. I completely agree that is your role. Well, you have the role of both an educator and a student. You are constantly learning about all the different new technologies as you noted, you’re always trying to find out about new innovations. But you also have a background as an educator for all things electrical and mechanical in boats.

Nigel Calder  8:10 

Yeah. So, I don’t want to see any roadblocks put in place that will prevent the adoption of new technology, but I want to see us put in place standards that will make sure that, as that technology comes to fruition, it’s not going to burn the boat owner. Burn it literally.

Denis Phares  8:29

Literally and figuratively, yeah.

Nigel Calder  8:31

(Laughs) I shouldn’t use that word, should I?

Denis Phares  8:32 

Not in the context of lithium batteries, we try to avoid that.

Nigel Calder  8:35 

Yes, I understand that. So that’s been my… Well, put it another way. I’ve enjoyed a fabulous lifestyle. I’ve done pretty much whatever I want to do all my life. I have gone cruising for months at a time. My lifestyle has been funded by the people that buy my books, and buy the articles I write, and subscribe to BoatHowTo or whatever, so, I view this as a symbiotic relationship. I do the homework for my audience, and, in buying the fruits of that homework, they support my lifestyle. So, I view my role in ABYC as kind of like 100% advocate for the boating community.

Denis Phares  9:16 

I kind of feel that the ABYC, correct me if I’m wrong, is a little bit behind in terms of how widespread the lithium-ion batteries are already on a lot of boats, and also, how advanced other industries are. The RV industry is one example. Am I misguided in that thinking or do you…?

Nigel Calder  9:40 

No, I think that’s inevitable to a large extent because no standards writing organization wants to invest energy and writing a standard until the particular technology is beginning to get real traction in the marketplace. And then, it takes three to five years to write standard, at least, in this case 13 or 14 years old, and so you’re way behind the curve. And that’s a part of the process. But then, you need to have a relatively flexible process so that you can correct any imbalance, or mistakes, or whatever in the process. And that’s where I really liked the ABYC because, when it comes down to it, if there’s issues that they feel need to be addressed in between review processes, which are typically five years apart, they’ll do it. When you get involved with the European standards, writing processes, they’re written into law, as opposed to the ABYC is voluntary compliance. Once written into law, it’s a long process to change anything. So, if you write a standard, that really is a technical blocker, which they can do, it’s a huge effort to correct that problem.

Denis Phares  10:51 

I do still feel that, even in the context of other industries, the ABYC is a little bit more conservative when it comes to trying to… Maybe conservative isn’t the right word. It’s more difficult to implement a standard because the way things are tends to be preserved.

Nigel Calder  11:12 

So, Denis, we need more people like you involved just to push the process a little harder.

Denis Phares  11:18 

Have I not been obnoxious enough at these meetings?

Nigel Calder  11:20 

No, you’ve been pretty obnoxious.

(Laughter)

Nigel Calder  11:24 

No, that’s not true, you’ve been terrific. But it all comes down to who’s in the room when the decisions are being made. The room is very open. Pretty much anybody can show up that has an interest, whether or not they’re a member of the ABYC, and they can participate in the discussion. And, most of the time, when we take a vote, it’s a vote of everybody in the room, regardless of whether or not they’re members. Only if it looks to be controversial do we refine it down to members of the committee, but, most of the time, that whole discussion is really open. It’s a matter of just being in the room and pushing down. And it’s not because anybody doesn’t want to listen, it’s because their viewpoint, maybe nobody in the room is going to present it.

Denis Phares  12:06 

Here’s what I think it is because, to be fair, everyone’s awesome on the committee, I like everybody…

Nigel Calder  12:10  

This is right, Denis, you’re getting the right words here.

Denis Phares  12:13 

Look, it’s never been unpleasant to be up there, but the difference is, if you compare to, for example, the RVIA, there are basically four gigantic RV companies that control most of the market. Marine boats is very different, it’s a very fragmented market. And then, I can imagine that there are a lot of smaller outfits that it would be more difficult to comply with.

Nigel Calder  12:40 

We have 50 people in the room these days, all of whom have an opinion, and there’s no restraint on them expressing that opinion. So, it’s way harder to pull all of this together. As I say, the first meeting I went to, there were probably only six people in the room, and I can remember two or three of them, even now. And so, the standard writing process was much easier, and faster, and more agile. It’s just the world we’re in.

Denis Phares  13:15 

Well, now the world has changed a little bit because of the popularity of lithium-ion batteries.

Nigel Calder  13:21 

So, let’s talk about that, and let’s talk about why they are such an important technology in boats because that’s really what I’m interested in.

Denis Phares  13:30 

Okay. All right. Let’s talk about lithium in boats. Why is lithium important in boats? Certainly, we know that we know the benefits when it comes to energy density, and charge time, power, all that stuff. How has it affected your life as a boater?

Nigel Calder  13:49 

Well, let’s back it up a little bit, I got a pretty good-sized grant out of the European Union; multi-million dollars a decade or so ago, to look at the application of automotive hybrid technologies in boats. And we did a lot of analyses of efficiencies of different technologies. Essentially, we’re talking about creating energy, whether it’s proportional house loads, or whatever. And we collected a bunch of numbers that showed so unbelievably inefficient it is to create… This is kind of on the side of the project, it wasn’t the focus, the focus was propulsion. But, in the process, we got all these numbers on how unbelievably inefficient and expensive it is to generate electrical energy on boats for house loads. And then, I started doing some numbers, actually, it was a transatlantic flight and I was sketching some numbers down and doing some calculations. And I came up with a number, the cost of producing a kilowatt hour of energy on a boat. And I came out with like 10 to $20, where you pay 10 to 20 cents at home for a kilowatt hour of energy, and I thought I had the decimal point in the wrong place. So, I did the calculation again, and the decimal point ended in the same place. So, I did it again, and again, and I finally realized that this is really how much we were paying for generating electricity on boats. And then, I started to think about how we could radically transform this and get closer to what it costs to get a kilowatt hour of energy out of the wall. And that spawned a whole lot of research and other developments over the years. And which lithium-ion is a totally critical component because of all of the features that you and I both know about; the high charge acceptance rates, the high energy efficiency, the high charge acceptance rates, the high state of charge, and the high discharge rates. All of these features within lithium-ion battery chemistry make possible these energy systems that are just radically… We’re not talking quantitative improvements, we’re talking qualitative changes in terms of the energy systems we have on our boats, for house loads. And some of that spins off into propulsion, which is kind of where I started, but I realized the primary benefits of this technology were all in house systems and what we could do with it.

Denis Phares  16:12 

Why is there… I kind of know the answer. There’s more of an urgency now to get these standards in and get this done. And, okay, I’ll just say it, insurance companies are starting to have problems with lithium-ion batteries on boats.

Nigel Calder  16:26 

Yes. And the fundamental reason is because the electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery is flammable. And there are certain conditions that those batteries can go into like overcharge, or over-discharge, or trying to charge in freezing temperatures, there’s a whole variety of manufacturing defects, the whole variety of conditions, which can drive the battery into a situation where it’s generating heat internally. And once it starts to do that, it’s very difficult to stop. And that heat can rise to a level at which it sets a battery on fire. And we’ve all seen the news stories. And if we come full circle, that’s kind of back to where we started, that’s where standards become so important to try and create a framework within which that will not happen. When the whole goal of this is not to say how we deal with it if it happens, but to make sure it can’t happen, we don’t get to that point in the process. To recognize the problems, the inherent limitations of the technology, and to make sure we just don’t go there. And that’s really the whole point of the standards process.

Denis Phares  17:36 

Ultimately, the goal is a safe system that can be widely proliferated for boaters, and obviously, can be insured. That’s an important part of it.

Nigel Calder  17:47

Yes.

Denis Phares  17:48

And so, do you think that what the ABYC is doing now is sufficient to make that happen?

Nigel Calder  17:55 

Well, it obviously isn’t. My insurance policy refused to renew my policy because of my lithium-ion batteries, and I know that’s happening to other people. So, to that extent, we haven’t created the level of confidence in the insurance industry that we have something that they can hang their hat on, because they don’t understand lithium-ion batteries, they just want to know that there’s a standard out there with a sticker on the battery that says, if it passes this particular standard, it’s not going to catch fire and burn the boat down.

Denis Phares  18:25 

But now there’s the E13 standard.

Nigel Calder  18:29 

The E13 Standard does not go far enough to do that, if it did, we wouldn’t have insurance companies currently yanking insurance. It’s also a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the insurance industry, I think they’ve had a couple of fire accident investigators that have kind of ramped up the risk and generated this reaction. But they’ve also had some claims. It’s not so much the boat that catches fire that’s the problem for them, it’s if it’s in a marina and sets light to 6 other boats, and they’ve had some very expensive claims. So, it’s like the nuclear industry. A very low probability with a very high expense is something you don’t want to insure. And that’s kind of where lithium-ion stands at the moment, it’s a low probability, in my experience. I’ve been surprised actually, given like the hoverboards and all these other things that catch fire, I’ve been surprised at how few fires we’ve had. So, it’s a low probability, but in certain environments, it’s a high risk. And the insurers right now, they’re dealing with Hurricane Ida, they’re dealing with all these other massive claims. They’re getting beaten up in the boat world, and they just don’t want to take the risk. So, what we need is a standard which says if the battery is built to this standard, and it has this sticker on it, don’t worry about it. You and I both know we can get there. It’s not that big a deal. There are battery companies, including Battle Born that already have the sticker, it’s just a matter now of persuading the insurance industry that that’s adequate. And the ABYC standard is not adequate.

Denis Phares  20:10 

So, at what point does it make sense for the ABYC standard to comply with those others to make it more adequate for insurance companies, or do you think that’s not as important?

Nigel Calder  20:21 

At the end of the day, the insurance will decide. And it may be they decide that you will; 10, 2054, is that what you’re doing, or a UL9073?

Denis Phares  20:32 

We do 2054, 60133 and we’re working on 9073.

Nigel Calder  20:36 

Yeah. They may decide that that’s good enough.

Denis Phares  20:38 

I think any of those is good enough. So I guess my point is, how…

Nigel Calder  20:43 

Sorry to interrupt, but then those standards relate to how the battery is built and tested, they don’t relate to how it’s installed in a boat. And that’s where the ABYC is really important because it addresses the installation issues. So basically, within the ABYC standard, from my perspective, what we need to say is that, in terms of battery construction, you need the sticker that says he was third-party tested to whatever. And then, we’ve got all the rest of the stuff in the standard, which says, “Now, you take that battery, and you put it in a boat, and this is how you put it in the boat.”

Denis Phares  21:17 

I agree 100%. I didn’t bring you on here to say that, just so you know.

Nigel Calder  21:23

Well, I have been beating this drum…

Denis Phares  21:24

I gave you some whiskey, and finally, I got you to say it.

Nigel Calder  21:27 

I’ve been beating this drum for over 10 years.

Denis Phares  21:31 

Well, I couldn’t agree more. So, on that note, I don’t know if you want to add anything else to that whole endeavor that you’ve been going through, this 14-year endeavor.

Nigel Calder  21:43 

So, the bit that I’m really fascinated by, the core issue that we’re addressing here is the fire issue. Everything else, so the battery fails, lead acid batteries fail all the time, we’ve been dealing with that phone for 50 years.

Denis Phares  22:01

And they cause fires too.

Nigel Calder  22:03

And they can cause fires. I’ve got some, normally speaking, it’s an explosion rather than a fire because the hydrogen goes up. And, let’s say. It’s very, very rare. We get lots of hydrogen venting, we get very few explosions. But the thing that will solve 90% of these problems associated with lithium-ion batteries are nonflammable batteries, that I know you have in the pipeline. So, how many years out are we on that?

Denis Phares  22:36 

Well, we are currently building our pilot line. And we should have cells off of the pilot line that are all solid state and nonflammable at some point next year, that’s that’s the plan. So, we’re hoping to have it this year, let’s just say that the money situation delayed that a little bit. And so, we’re in a good position now to complete the pilot line to make those solid-state cells probably early next year.

Nigel Calder  23:06 

So, that shifts a problem from being one of safety to one of performance because then all we care about is do these lithium-ion batteries do what we need them to do.

Denis Phares  23:18 

That’s exactly why we’re focusing on the same chemistry that we know performs, which is lithium-ion phosphate and graphite. And ultimately, we want the longevity. The energy density is important in…

Nigel Calder  23:32

But that’s a performance issue.

Denis Phares  23:34

The energy density. But I think the lithium-ion phosphate is a great energy density.

Nigel Calder  23:36 

So then, we just get to the general perception, “Is this battery better than my lead acid battery?” Or, “Can I do better things with it?” But the safety issue goes away. And the core thing here is that, one way or another, we solve the safety issue, either through testing, and stickers, and standards, or through construction. And then, the rest of it is just a market judgment on performance; is this battery worth the money, yes or no? From my perspective, if it’s a lithium-ion battery and it’s got similar performance characteristics to what we have in the market today, it opens up a whole new world of energy systems that’s just radically better than anything we had in the past.

Denis Phares  24:19 

Right. Well, thank you for saying that. Our whole premise is we’re making these batteries so that they can be widely deployed in people’s homes, in large systems under your bedroom, in your garage, or something, so that even if there is a fire in the home, that that won’t necessarily distribute the fire.

Nigel Calder  24:37 

Yes. And then, from a safety perspective, it’s no different than putting a lead acid battery. And we’ve been doing that for 100 and something years and nobody worries about it.

Denis Phares  24:45 

Would you like some samples when they come out?

Nigel Calder  24:48 

(Laughs) That’s called bribery and corruption. I would love to test some samples.

Denis Phares  24:54 

You’ll have one of the first dibs on them.

Nigel Calder  24:57 

And I promise to beat the shit out of it because that’s what I do.

Denis Phares  25:00

Please do, that’s what they’re for.

Nigel Calder  25:02

I try to make things fail as long as I don’t think I’ll lose my boat over it.

Denis Phares  25:07

Lose your boat?

Nigel Calder  25:09

With current lithium-ion technology, you never know. So, I’m a little cautious with it. With lead acid, for example, I have destroyed thousands and thousands of dollars worth of batteries over the years just by pushing them to the limits and see what happens.

Denis Phares  25:24 

Right. Well, at least you’re knowledgeable enough to know to look for that sticker on the battery pack when you…

Nigel Calder  25:29

Yes.

Denis Phares  25:32

Well, great. Thank you so much, Nigel, for joining the podcast, and it’s always a pleasure.

Nigel Calder  25:37 

Well, thank you for all the R&D you’re doing because, until I came here, I had no idea how much you’re investing in R&D. And you’re the one with the arrows in the back, and so, this R&D you’re doing will pay off for everybody in the boating community in the long term. And it’s terrific. Thank you.

Denis Phares  25:58 

Thank you. Well, that’s going to do it for today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

[End Of Recording]

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