JERUSALEM — Israel’s Merkava Mark IV tanks have completed 3,000 kilometers worth of field testing using lithium-ion 6T batteries developed by local company Epsilor-Electric Fuel. The accomplishment comes amid Israel’s plans for future armored vehicles to run on hybrid propulsion, known as the Carmel program.
The company now sees the battery application expanding to heavy-duty platforms, such as armored fighting vehicles, according to Felix Frisch, Epsilor’s vice president for marketing and sales.
Li-ion batteries are lighter weight and provide more energy than some other means of fuel. They can operate through 10 times the number of cycles of a normal battery and benefit robots and unmanned ground vehicles that require lightweight batteries.
And while the hurdle in integrating this technology has traditionally been cost and safety, that’s changing. The price tag for the batteries has decreased in recent years, from around $1,000 per kilowatt hour to $200. Their increased use in the commercial market by companies like electric car manufacturer Tesla is driving cost reductions and innovation.
“We have learned a lot from the long test series and now we are presenting a mature product, fit to serial integration in large vehicle fleets,” Frisch said. “We are now presenting a family of 6T batteries, based on two complementary chemistries: lithium NCA with its extremely high energy density, and lithium iron phosphate, with a longer life cycle and improved safety.”
The latest lithium batteries enable growth of onboard energy for armored vehicles by up to 300 percent and gives them the flexibility to perform “silent watch” missions for up to 16 hours. This can transform the ability of vehicles to handle more onboard tech, such as air-conditioning systems, C4I tech, active protection systems like Israel’s Trophy, and electro-optics. Such gadgets and the increased use of unmanned vehicles call for lighter batteries that last longer and can enable vehicles to perform more tasks.
High-tech militaries like Denmark have been the first to adopt the battery technology, and countries like India may follow as they overhaul aging vehicles. Li-ion batteries also provide added value to countries seeking green technology. Some NATO members in particular are seeking more efficient and sustainable energy, according to a 2018 declaration from the alliance. Epsilor was awarded a new budget by the Ministry of Defense for a production line and has secured 10 customers globally, including Israel. Six of the 10 are NATO members, according to the company.
Equipped with the Epsilor 6T batteries, the Merkava operated at training bases in the Golan Heights and the Negev desert. Despite the diversity of terrain and heat, the batteries did not suffer problems. Epsilor has also performed testing with customers from colder climates, according to the company. “Now we are presenting a more mature product that is ready for serial procurement,” Frisch said.
Li-ion batteries are currently operational in Israel for use with UAVs and underwater systems. Beyond the Carmel future armored vehicle program, the hybrid propulsion concept can enable an armored vehicle to be deployed for days without resupply by more lightly armored logistic vehicles. “As a drop-in replacement for existing batteries in legacy vehicle fleets, the integration of ELI-52526 battery is smooth and straightforward. There is no need to modify anything in the vehicle. A battery is installed and the mission continues as usual," said Ronen Badichi, the president of Epsilor.
The U.S. Army has also looked at improving battery technology to enhance mobility and lethality “while unburdening logistics requirements.” For its part, South Korea developed li-ion batteries for use on next-generation attack submarines while li-ion producer Saft has placed the battery type on torpedoes.
Seth Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has been covering conflict in the Middle East since 2010. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.