Novel recharger threatens battery sales

A battery recharger has been developed by the Innovations Group to recharge normal batteries as well as special "rechargeables". Battery lives can be extended up to ten times, the developers says, reducing the volume of batteries disposed of to the environment. But battery producers have condemned the product as unsafe and unwanted.

Battery recharging is a recent and still limited habit among consumers. It has apparent environment benefits and actual cost gains. In 1988, sales of rechargeable nickel-cadmium cells were at 7% in the consumer market. Today the figure is of the same order.

One of the reasons for rechargeables' limited success has been their initial cost - often more than double that of primary long-life alkaline batteries - coupled with the cost of the recharging system. Recharging also has a large "inconvenience factor".

Consumption of primary batteries has therefore remained large in the UK, at 550 million units per year. But according to its manufacturer's claims, the new recharger could go some way to reducing this "substantially by an order of magnitude".

The principle of recharging ordinary batteries has been known for many years. The problem has been in controlling the process at an acceptable price to ensure that unfit batteries do not leak or explode.

Innovations Group claims to have overcome this problem with microelectronic technology to constantly monitor the state of each battery, adjusting the waveform as necessary, and turning off the process when damage is likely. In doing so, the battery can be recharged up to 20 times, increasing its life by up to 10 times. The charge taken by the battery decreases after each recharge.

However, the British Battery Manufacturers Association (BBMA) remains unconvinced. A spokesman warned of potentially "serious consequences", especially following electronic failure of the control mechanism. Several battery manufacturers are currently testing the recharger for signs of safety problems.

The BBMA is also concerned that the new product may confuse customers and encourage them to use conventional rechargers to recharge primary batteries. Adding to the confusion is a warning on all primary batteries that they should not be recharged.

The BBMA also contends that most consumers run their batteries totally flat, making them impossible to recharge.Innovations disputes this, claiming that battery performance deteriorates slowly, giving consumers advance warning. In addition, when batteries are used in groups, one battery totally discharges before the rest, making the appliance work below par. The recharger can then be used to check which batteries are suitable for recharging.

The recharger can also be used to recharge nickel-cadmium rechargeables. These can be reused up to 1,000 times, and have a far greater potential for both economic and environmental savings than recharging ordinary batteries. The BBMA argues that consumers willing to make the effort to recharge should stick to the proper rechargeable batteries.

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