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Zinc-air batteries to join the charge

Move over, lithium-ion. A start-up company in northwestern Montana reports that it has solved the rechargeable problem that has dogged zinc-air battery development and will soon be in competition with the dominant lithium-ion technology.

Ron Brost, CTO and CEO of ZAF Energy Systems, reports his research team has developed a zinc-air prototype that produces two times the energy of a lithium-ion battery at a third of the cost, with applications ranging from powering cell phones to airplanes.

The technology, which has four (or pending) patents, was developed by an offshoot of four-year-old ViZn Energy Systems (formerly Zinc Air, Incorporated), which is beginning to commercialize its zinc-iron redox grid batteries.

Several other companies and research labs have reported breakthroughs in creating a zinc-air battery in the last few months, including Eos Systems and Fluidic Energy.

Advantages of zinc over lithium-ion are many and obvious: zinc is a readily available and cheap mineral, with resources totaling 1.9 billion worldwide; it costs about a third what lithium costs; it weighs about half what lithium weighs in comparable applications; and while lithium-ion batteries have caught fire under certain trials, zinc is environmentally benign, going to zinc oxide (the main component of baby powder) after playing out in a battery. And zinc oxide is easily recyclable; Brost claims the ZAF battery itself will be recyclable.

But let’s look at what ZAF scientists say their prototype can do. Brost wrote in a white paper that research institutes and industrial labs have verified the basic function of rechargeable zinc-air cells, but three basic problems have remained: the air catalyst must be stable and convert oxygen to hydroxide during discharge and evolve oxygen during charges; the zinc electrode must be protected against air oxidation in order to prevent self-discharge and must be able to be formed and reformed hundreds of times without loss of energy or shorting the cell; and the alkaline electrolyte cannot lose water as it is exposed to a continual stream of air, nor can it react with air contaminants such as carbon dioxide.
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