A POUND OF LITHIUM, A POUND OF LEAD
Telecom carriers have long had a love-hate relationship with the backup batteries used to power their equipment. Certainly, the telecom battery has become an indispensable element in carriers' networks — especially in tight spaces such as remote terminal cabinets. On the other hand, batteries are notoriously unpredictable entities, often requiring carriers to devote countless man-hours to their ongoing maintenance and upkeep.
And if batteries ever get too hot and bothered — a phenomenon known as thermal runaway — watch out: They can leak nasty gasses and liquids, and sometimes even explode, which can really mess up a remote terminal.
So it's little wonder that a new, less temperamental battery design has been getting a lot of attention from the carrier community recently. After years in development and months in field trials, the lithium-metal-polymer battery is poised to make its North American debut this year. The lithium technology differs from traditional lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries in that it contains no corrosive liquids that can leak, nor will it explode if it's overheated.
But what really intrigues carriers is that lithium-metal-polymer batteries are much smaller and lighter than other types. For example, take valve-regulated lead-acid, or VRLA, batteries. As the name implies, they are often as heavy as, well, several pounds of lead. Compare that with lithium batteries, which are made out of one of the lightest substances on earth. It's a simplistic comparison, but the point is that LMP batteries have broken a lot of the rules that have constrained battery design for years.
Now, even in a market in which carrier capex is in extremely short supply, some major carriers are already announcing their intent to invest heavily in the technology over the next several years. To be sure, LMP batteries seem poised to shake up the power sector a bit, and it isn't just the carriers that are paying close attention.
The only manufacturer that currently offers an LMP battery for the telecom market is Avestor. Based in the Montreal suburb of Boucherville, the company — which was originally called Argo-Tech — was created in 1994 as a 50-50 joint venture between Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian electric utility, and Kerr-McGee, an energy and chemical company based in Oklahoma City.
Last fall, Avestor inaugurated its LMP battery manufacturing plant during the Intelec telecom power show. But Avestor's story actually began in the 1970s, which is when Hydro-Quebec first started experimenting with lithium-metal-polymer technology. Like so many technologies that seem to suddenly grab the attention of telecom carriers, it's a revolution that's actually been in the making for several years.
“Tadek Borys came in as CEO, and the first thing he did was focus the company on one target market,” said Robert Gibney, chief marketing officer for Avestor. “And the telecom industry at that time was starting to take off, and it looked very attractive.”
Now, after almost four years of field trials with the regional Bell operating companies, LMP batteries are ready for their close-up. Avestor is prepared to ship its SE 48S70 battery starting in the second quarter, and some of the RBOCs are already lining up. SBC Communications, for one, has been so impressed with its initial trials of Avestor's battery that it is implementing an aggressive deployment plan: no more VRLA batteries.
“We're going to use their LMP battery to replace every VRLA we have in the network, one hundred percent,” said Wally Gaines, who is in charge of the carrier's remote terminal power staff for its 13-state territory. According to Gaines, the timetable to complete such a significant rollout is by the end of 2005, but given the economy and carriers' limited capex budgets, a more realistic goal is 2010, he added.
Qwest Communications isn't as aggressive in its rollout plans for LMP batteries, but it does intend to deploy them in hotter climates where it has run into problems with VRLAs, which often can't tolerate higher temperatures. “In remote terminals in the desert or southern latitudes where it's hot, you get the quickest payback,” said Curtis Ashton, senior technical support engineer for Qwest.
Avestor executives have been understandably pleased at the positive industry response the technology has received thus far. “We're to the point where we've done all this homework, and it's finally starting to come to the forefront,” said Harvey Wilkinson, national sales director for Avestor. “The bottom line is that [carriers] haven't really had a battery alternative that they've liked.”
So how does the future look for VRLA batteries? If you listen to SBC's Gaines, not very promising. “The industry needs to get out of the VRLA business,” he said. “It's time, the advanced battery technologies have matured, and we're ready to move on it.”
Indeed, the proliferation of LMP technology in the remote terminal and other applications could spell trouble for VRLA battery manufacturers, which have often faced criticism from frustrated carriers.
“We didn't walk away from Intelec with a warm feeling from the competition,” Avestor's Gibney said. Certainly, the onset of lithium-polymer technology could be perceived as a threat by manufacturers of VRLA and, to a lesser extent, Ni-Cd batteries. “It's pretty clear that this technology is new, and I think it is concerning [for them],” Gibney said.
But the newness of the technology is exactly why some competitors aren't acting too concerned — yet. It's just too soon to tell just how successful LMP batteries will be, said Stephen Vechy, director of marketing for Reading, Pa.-based EnerSys, one of the leading VRLA battery manufacturers. “We're just waiting to see whether this has the meat to carry it through,” he said. “There are certainly people looking at it. But there are people looking at electric vehicles, and they've been doing that for how many years?”
And despite the litany of advantages that LMP may have over other types of batteries, those advantages do come at a price: LMP batteries currently cost substantially more than VRLA batteries — about four to five times as much by some estimates. Some carriers may decide that the initial investment in LMP batteries is simply not worth the payback — especially in more temperate climates where VRLA batteries can last up to 10 years.
So don't count VRLA batteries out yet, said Vechy, who added that recent advancements have produced more heat-resistant VRLA batteries with longer life cycles such as EnerSys' PowerSafe VX product line.
Despite the initial high cost of LMP batteries, the long-term economics may tilt the scale in their favor because of the potential savings in maintenance and replacement costs.
“There are a lot of remote terminals out there, and over time it could be quite a significant deployment,” said John Celentano, president of Skyline Marketing. He added that the real appeal of LMP batteries not only lies in their heat tolerance and lightweight design, but in their high-density power output. “As carriers move toward broadband, [LMP technology] has some pretty interesting applications for power.”
That's because even as carriers add equipment to enable the rollout of broadband services, the size of the remote terminal doesn't change. Therefore, a battery's footprint becomes extremely important as cabinet real estate becomes increasingly scarce.
That's also why Avestor is working on partnerships with other companies that specialize in high-density power solutions — and that already have their foot in the door with the RBOCs. One of those partnerships was announced just last week with Valere Power. Valere is pre-packaging Avestor's battery with its Compact DC Power System, which is a high-density, low-maintenance power system designed for the remote terminal.
“When [carriers] look at a total cost of ownership model, they can see payback in a few years by putting in a high-performance, high-density battery,” said Valere President and CEO Andy Marsh. In fact, it was Valere's carrier customers that encouraged it to partner with Avestor, he said.
Which brings the battery debate to a rather obvious conclusion: The question of how extensively LMP technology will pervade the network is ultimately up to the carriers. And given that their deployment is just now getting underway, only time will tell how much LMP batteries will change the face of telecom network power. As Avestor's Gibney put it, “It's going to boil down to what the technicians think out in the field.”
POWER PLAYS (news briefs from the power industry)
Vendors know that even the most innovative technology won't grab large carriers' attention if it isn't NEBS certified.
Fortunately for Shindengen, its Omni Series DC Power system has it where it counts. The power company underwent the lengthy certification process and met Level 3 compliance. It is now set to deploy to carriers and RBOCs that require NEBS.
The Omni Series is for central office use and its power plant is expandable to 3600 A.
|SINE OF THE
Magnetek's new SLI Series inverters are geared for applications that require continuous sine wave power. Four models accommodate voltage combinations of 24 and 48 VDC on the input side, and outputs of 115 and 230 VAC.
The 19-inch rack mount inverters have an integrated controller and optional Static Transfer Switch, and they provide modular capability for parallel operation of multiple inverters. The SLI Series Inverters can be programmed using an on-board digital signal processor.
To provide customers with a wider range of options in designing equipment, Tyco Electronics Power Systems has extended its Onami DC/DC converter product line to include 5 V and 12 V modules.
Aimed at communications and computer equipment makers, the modules allow standard 36 VDC power input to be converted to 75 VDC. The modules are also equipped with safety features that protect against high voltage or temperature extremes.
TO PROTECT AND
It also features true online, double conversion technology that generates continual pure sine wave AC output.
The equipment is SNMP compatible and includes PowerAlert software that performs remote shutdowns as well as controls and monitors the system and its data. The Power Alert software is Palm certified for wireless applications and can be accessed and controlled remotely using a Web phone.
LAYING IT ONLINE
The site also includes the latest industry news and a secure area in which project files and be stored and accessed via the Web.
CUBES, FONZIE AND AGERE'S POWER TRANSISTORS
Agere Systems has launched 21 new transistors aimed at the wireless base station power amplifier market that, according to the company, achieve operating temperatures that are 10% to 15% lower than those of other wireless RF transistors.
The transistors target 3G, 2.5G and 2G base station equipment. Because the transistors require fewer cooling fans, which reduce cost and noise pollution, Agere said they reduce the overall costs that wireless service providers must pay for wireless amplifiers and base stations.
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