Remembering lithium battery giant Ralph Brodd: 1928-2024

Remembering lithium battery giant Ralph Brodd: 1928-2024

Remembering lithium battery giant Ralph Brodd: 1928-2024 618 642 Energy Storage Journal

March 7, 2024: It is with sadness that Batteries International and sister magazine Energy Storage Journal, have to announce the death of lithium battery giant Ralph Brodd, who died last month aged 95.

Jim Greenberger, NAATBatt executive director and its joint co-founder with Ralph described him as “one of the most consequential figures in the history of advanced battery technology in the US”.

Ralph’s most enduring impact on US industry grew out of his article Factors Affecting U.S. Production Decisions: Why Are There No Volume Lithium-Ion Battery Manufacturers in the United States? published in December 2006. 

In that article, Ralph was the first to sound the alarm about the loss of lithium ion battery manufacturing capability in the US and the long-term consequences of that loss.

His influence has been extensive.

Greenberger first met Ralph in 2007. It was Ralph who convinced him to found NAATBatt to address the looming crisis of lithium battery technology in the US.

That effort in turn caught the attention of a first-term senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.  The rest is history.

“Now Ralph belongs to the history he first created. He had more impact on it than many realize,” says Greenberger.

Over the past few years, federal and state governments have made unprecedented investments in EVs and supply chain projects to try to help US manufacturers and workers regain the lead in lithium ion battery manufacturing, Greenberger said.

The revised Section 30D tax credit will inject about $7.5 billion of investment into US-made EVs.  The Advanced Manufacturing Production Credit should generate tax credits of about $30.6 billion to US manufacturers through 2031. An additional $13.8 billion of subsidies has been awarded by states and localities to at least 51 EV and lithium ion battery plants. 

“Every single one of those investments can trace its origin to Ralph Brodd and his 2006 article,” says Greenberger.

Electrochemical Society

Ralph James Brodd was born in Moline, Illinois on September 8, 1928, his parents were of farming stock originally and his father had been a fighter pilot in the first world war. His mother was a teacher, a profession he spoke about with respect all his life and something that was deeply important as an academic. A chemistry set given to him, aged seven, for Christmas led to a love of science (“going boom was my favourite” he later described mixing zinc with acid and lighting the gases). “By the time I’d got to junior high school I’d decided to be a chemist,” he later recalled.

He obtained a BA in chemistry from Augustana College, a private Lutheran college in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1950, the year he married Dorothy who was to be his partner for the rest of his life. This was followed by an MA in physical chemistry from the University of Texas and his PhD there two years later.

His connections with the Electrochemical Society (ECS) run deep. He was invited to join in 1954 as a young researcher pursuing a PhD at the University of Texas. Little did he know on his first visit to an ECS meeting in Cincinnati that this was a start of a lifetime relationship with the society or that he would one day become its president

A lovely anecdote is told in a later interview for the ECS archives.

It was 1954 and Ralph and his wife, Dorothy, were expecting their second child. As full time students, the couple worried about finding the money to pay the hospital bills.

The morning Dorothy was set to come home from the hospital, after delivering the couple’s second child, Ralph was deeply worried about where they would find the money to cover the costs, especially as healthcare in the US was very expensive. Ralph braced himself for the worst but before heading to the hospital, he checked his mailbox and discovered a letter from ECS.

In this he learned he had won the 1954 Corrosion Division Essay Contest. The letter came complete with a prize cheque that would be the answer Ralph and Dorothy were looking for. The essay paid the hospital bill. “That saved us!” Ralph revealed years later.

That moment also spurred what would become Ralph’s lifetime dedication to the ECS. He went on to be elected ECS vice president in 1978, later claiming the title of president in 1981. He was named an honorary member of the society in 1987 and served as an editor of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

In terms of work, fresh from obtaining his PhD in 1955 the young Dr Brodd joined what was then called the National Bureau of Standards. Here he worked specifically on standard cells, kinetics of battery-related reactions, and the internal impedance of batteries.

Academic career

He later used to say that his understanding of impedance had been both the discovery of “one of the most powerful tools [in battery analysis] but also offering all sorts of very interesting things.” He worked at the standards bureau for six years.

Meanwhile he was also pursuing an academic career. He taught physical chemistry in the US Department of Agriculture Graduate School from 1956 to 1961, and lectured in electrochemistry at Georgetown University (1961) and American University (1958).

In 1961, Ralph joined LTV Research Center as a senior scientist and was appointed head of the energy sources section in 1962, which included fuel cell and plasma physics. During this time the fuel cells he had been helping develop were contenders for the first Apollo lunar landing series.

His next move in 1963 was to the Battery Products Technology Center of Union Carbide Corporation in Parma, Ohio. He became group leader in 1965 and technical manager in 1966.  

It was at Union Carbide he first encountered lithium batteries. He and a Japanese colleague were so excited about the possibilities of lithium manganese dioxide as a primate battery that they set up the International Battery Material Association and organized a conference where 200 people from Japan and elsewhere attended.

However, much to his disappointment Union Carbide weren’t much interested saying that they reckoned it would take at least five to 10 years for lithium batteries to be commercially attractive.

Ralph recalls that indeed when some of the first lithium cells were released, they first found a market for fishing floats in Japan. “Alkaline batteries were too heavy but a lithium battery was so light it could be used as a light for those wanting to fish at night. But we all could see it would soon outgrow the early limitations.

“There’s not much point in making a battery if you can’t sell it,” he said in an interview in 2015.

In 1978, he joined ESB which became INCO ElectroEnergy as director of technology.

He hit the ground running at INCO — in the next four years he established a Technology Surveillance group at the research center, this led him to having oversight and policy responsibility for the five INCO ElectroEnergy R&D laboratories. This was a huge remit as he had to cover many product areas ranging from primary and secondary batteries to uninterruptible power supplies and small electric motors.

Consultancy

It was after this he set up his own consultancy called Broddarp — a vehicle that he was to re-establish many years a later on his retirement when he reached the age of 70.

Consultancy clients led to other work, sometimes in new areas of energy storage.

He became project manager to the Amoco Research centre where he was responsible for  rechargeable lithium sulfur dioxide battery project from 1984 to 1986.

It was here he developed a sophisticated business plan and commercialization strategy that included market research — something that was starting to become popular at that time.

He next would move to Gould Inc where he would spend the next six years helping establish and manage its lithium Powerdex battery venture based on flat lithium battery technology. He established production, sales and marketing, and the RD&E functions for the venture. He developed new primary Li-MnO2 production technology and expanded the product line in response to market opportunities.

Two new solid electrolyte batteries were developed: one an ultra-thin 0.5 mm thick cell for specialty and smart card applications as well as a small hermetic cell capable of withstanding SMT processing temperatures (+200°C).

With retirement starting to loom he joined Valence Technology in 1992 as staff consultant/marketing director. After a brief sojourn at Bolder Technologies, he returned to Valence as vice president of marketing. Valence Technology, was a venture group developing a unique Li-Ion battery system for rechargeable batteries for portable consumer.

During all this time he continued to pursue his academic and teaching work. In 1990 he became adjunct professor in chemistry at Michigan Technology University a position he would only step down from in 2014 (then aged 84).

Ralph worked in many areas of electrochemical power sources: primary and rechargeable batteries, including porous electrodes, exploratory new concepts, separator, lithium batteries, fuel cells, oxygen electrodes, and zinc air batteries, and fundamental electrode properties.

He held offices in Washington Capital and Cleveland sections of the ECS. In 1971, he received the Heise Award from the Cleveland section. He was general chairman of the MnO2 Symposium sponsored by the International Common Sample Office in 1975 and was chairman of the council of sections, the battery division, and honors and awards committee.

Ralph served on the education and contributing membership committees, and was chairman of the 75th year anniversary celebration ad hoc committee.

Ralph also served the society as representative to the Intersociety Energy Commerce and Engineering Conference and a battery division editor.

He was national secretary for the International Society of Electrochemistry (ISE) and chair of the 1979 Gordon Conference in Electrochemistry and secretary of the National Advisory ad hoc Battery Committee to EDRA. He was a member of ISE, ACS, AAAS, the Chemical Society (London), American Institute of Chemists, Sigma Xi, and the New York Academy of Science.

‘Kind and decent man’

Ralph published more than 110 articles and was awarded five patents and his papers widely published.  But that barely scratches the surface,” says Jim Greenberger.

“Yet he was also one of the kindest, most decent and most humble men you could ever hope to meet.”

A friend wrote about his time at the ECS and after that: “He loved to travel, enjoy fine dining and sipping good wine. He especially loved it when his wife would accompany him on his business and leisure travels, allowing them to see amazing sights in many countries.

“He had a true love for work, travel, and providing for his family. He was a gentle and humble man.”

“Our sincere condolences to Dorothy and to the rest of the Brodd family. Ralph will be sorely missed,” says Greenberger.

Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said, when appointing Ralph to head up the Kentucky-Argonne National Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center. “Ralph Brodd literally has written the book on advanced battery technologies, and I am excited by his willingness to help us develop a renowned battery manufacturing research and development center here in the Commonwealth,”

Looking back on his life it is strange that he is less well known than he deserves. Ralph will be missed by many, many more — knowingly or unknowingly —who have benefited from his teaching, wisdom, humility and deep work ethic.

Ralph is survived by his wife of 73 years Dorothy (née Siegle). He was the father of Wayne, Lynn Faenza (Joe), and Bill; grandfather of Matthew Brodd, Stephanie Woodman, Stacy Rainwater (Chris), Angela Myford (Erik), David Faenza (Jocelyn), Alora Brodd, and Kendall Mareovich (Wes). He was also the great grandfather of 11.