Bolts From The Sky
We test out Skyrich lithium-iron batteries too see if they really deliver all the promises of next- generation battery technology
Text & Photos: Derryn Wong
It’s impossible to avoid lithium nowadays. The element, which is actually a pale silvery and very soft metal has been traditionally used to treat mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder. Nowadays the most common place it’s used is in batteries - lithium-ion batteries are found in everything from smartphones to GPS units, tablets, laptops and even electric cars.
But as you may have read in CarBuyer itself, we’re all still waiting for the next step in battery technology for electric vehicles (cars and bikes) to become practical, widespread realities.However there is a new kind of battery which you can buy for a not-so-exorbitant price and which will reap you benefits, right now.
Sky’s the Limit
Skyrich is battery brand owned by Global Power Central Inc, which is based in the USA. It’s likely you’ve never heard of the brand, or GPC, since both have only been around since 2010, but the product you see before you is quite real. According to its website, Skyrich makes a number of different batteries for a wide range of applications, such as other powersports Skyrich batteries have only recently begun sale in Singapore - which is how we got our hands on one - but the technology the company is pushing is really quite interesting. The motorcycle battery you see here isn’t a conventional unit, nor is it even a lithium ion unit, but a lithium iron-phosphate battery. What does this mean?
First we’ll need a short primer on battery tech. A battery is simply a device made to emit electrical energy, and to store it in chemical form. All batteries have an anode, the positive end, and a cathode, the negative end, which correspond to where electrons flow in and out of the battery respectively. Electricity is basically, the flow of electrons after all. The chemical exchange, to put things very simply, happens with the help of electrolyte, through which ions are transferred - it’s the ion exchange that causes electron flow. Also to put it very simply, the anode undergoes a process called oxidation, which is the loss of electrons, while the cathode undergoes the opposite, reduction, which is the gain of electrons.
Batteries have come a long way from their ‘sticks of metal in a beaker of water’ origins, and the most common battery types are lead-acid, nickel-cadmium and nickel metal hydride. Lead-acid batteries have an anode of lead oxide, cathode made of lead, and the electrolyte of concentrated sulphuric acid. Lead-acid units have good ‘cranking power’, that is, they can deliver a large amount of current needed to turn starter motors, which is why they are the most common type of automotive battery, found in cars and motorcycles. As we know from daily usage, lead batteries are also quite reliable and can last around two or three years. Lead-acid batteries have advanced, despite their age, with improvements such as making the electrolyte into a gel form, hence the more reliable sealed gel batteries.
But they have many drawbacks: lead is very dense and heavy, which is why bike batteries are so painful to drop on your foot - as we can attest to first hand. Sulphuric acid is also corrosive, so it’s very dangerous if it leaks, and the buildup of gas as a byproduct of electrolysis can lead to explosions. Also, lead and sulphuric acid are potentially toxic chemicals, which is why lead-acid batteries should never be thrown into the trash. Lead- acid batteries, due to their chemical makeup, also deliver dramatically less performance as their voltage drops.
Lithium Feel Good
Skyrich claims a multitude of benefits with its lithium batteries. For starters, lithium-iron batteries have a few plus points over even regular lithium ion batteries. The latter use cobalt or magnesium oxide as the anode, so they’re still quite environmentally sensitive, while iron and phosphate are less so, although this also depends on the quantity and concentration of the elements too.
Lithium iron phosphate batteries have a slightly lower energy density than regular lithium batteries, but they have no risk of exploding, unlike conventional lithium cells - the much- publicised example of the Boeing 787’s mid-air fires is a good example of this. In the photos, you can see the Skyrich battery model we’re testing matched against the current lead-acid battery taken from my Piaggio X8 which is a 12V 10AH (ampere-hours, which is battery capacity) model. I’ve tabulated the figures between this and a comparable model from a major battery manufacturer, since the exact specifications of the lead acid battery aren’t available.
As you can see, the Skyrich outperforms the lead-acid battery comprehensively: it’s lighter, got more capacity and more cold-cranking power, or CCA. The latter is a measure of ‘from zero’ power delivery - it’s the amperage that a battery can deliver at zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18C) for thirty seconds without dropping below a certain voltage. While this doesn’t immediately mean a stonking battery, it’s a good indicator of performance. The most obvious difference is, besides a slight difference in size, the mass of the thing. Lead, as mentioned, is a very dense material, and that’s why the conventional bike battery weighs a whopping 3.4kg. In comparison, the lithium unit is less than a third the weight, at a positively airy 950g.
This weight-saving will also be of interest to the track-minded biker, since the saving of nearly 2.5kg of weight from a central location on the bike is rather useful. As you can also see in the photos, you can pick up the Skyrich unit with two fingers - it’s really that light. The battery comes supplied with foam spacers, an instruction manual and screws. The first lithium batteries for bikes were little more than shrink-wrapped, cylindrical lithium cells wired in series and they were aimed at the track-mad crowd. The newer models, like Skyrich’s, have a proper casing and don’t use off the shelf lithium cells either. Installation is much simpler, since you don’t have to swaddle the battery in anything to keep it from moving - the use of two spacers sufficed for our installation.
Another very interesting feature of the Skyrich battery is its built-in tester. A very nifty device, you simply push a button and it tells you the current (ha-ha) state of the battery. Even if you have a voltmeter installed on your bike, it’ll help diagnose the cause of a bike that’s failed to start, in the event of say, wire breakage or a failing starter motor.
Installing the battery was a five-minute job, just like a normal one. Our old lead-acid battery always took a half-second press before the engine fired, but the increased cranking power of the lithium unit was apparent from the erm, start, as the engine coughed to life almost immediately. There are other benefits that lithium tech brings: The batteries tend to hold their charge more stably and for a longer period. While Skyrich says that if you’re not going to be using the battery for more than two weeks you should take it out, the same is true of any conventional battery. Its official literature also states that a fully-charged unit should be able to sit on the bike for a year and still deliver a start, provided there’s no leeching of the battery from an alarm or other sources.
Another stand-out feature of a lithium iron battery, compared to a conventional lithium battery, is that it can withstand more charge/discharge cycles - 300 versus 2,000, according to Skyrich. The current scientific literature says a typical lithium battery (for general consumer products) should last around three years. A lead-acid motorcycle battery will last for about the same time, with regular use or a battery tender plugger in. The last option is unfortunately not possible for bike riders who don’t live in landed properties, so typically our batteries last one or two years, sometimes less. Skyrich says its batteries will last twice as long as a normal lead acid unit, around three years, but under ideal conditions will last six to eight years. Given a normal lead battery costs about $60-$80, on ‘back of the napkin’ calculations, the Skyrich unit should pay for itself in due time.
But concerns like longevity and charge holding will only be clearer in the long-term, though, so you’ll have to wait for our follow-up review to find out if lithium has been good to us. For now though, colour us convinced when it comes to lithium iron batteries.