The Zinc-ion Battery’s Role in the Energy Storage Industry
By: Ryan Brown, Co-Founder and CEO of Salient Energy
As governments around the world focus on addressing climate change and stimulating the post-COVID economy, batteries have become an increasingly important part of the public conversation. It is now abundantly clear that the world’s ability to transition to clean energy and electric vehicles depends on the amount and quality of batteries that are available. Lithium-ion batteries are the only technology that can meet the performance requirements for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. However, the demand for lithium-ion batteries is rising far quicker than investments in the raw materials required to produce them. Industry analysts expect demand for batteries to exceed material supplies by mid-decade. Alternatives to lithium-ion batteries are urgently needed to ensure that the transition to clean energy continues unabated.
Zinc-Ion Batteries: A New Li-ion Alternative
Lithium-ion batteries were initially developed because of their ability to store a large amount of energy in a small amount of mass and volume. This high energy density is of critical importance for portable applications like electronics and electric vehicles. However, stationary applications like renewable energy storage do not benefit from this energy density. In fact, the safety issues inherent in lithium-ion batteries pose significant challenges for this market. This application, therefore, offers the most opportunity for a lithium-ion alternative.
To replace lithium-ion in stationary energy storage, new battery chemistries need to be able to match lithium-ion’s power capabilities while offering improved safety and lifetime cost. Despite many attempts, few technologies have been able to achieve this. Flow batteries, for example, offer improved safety and lifetime cost, but offer too low power to be broadly useful in the electrical grid. The same is true for zinc-air batteries. Zinc-halide batteries appear to be the best candidate for replacing lithium-ion, but they are over 10x the size of comparable lithium-ion systems which makes them poorly suited for residential applications and has serious cost implications.
Fortunately, there is a new battery technology that overcomes these limitations. The zinc-ion battery is an entirely unique type of zinc battery that operates using the same principles as lithium-ion. These similarities mean that it has the power capability required for renewable energy storage while also being compact enough to directly replace lithium-ion in energy storage systems. Its water-based chemistry makes it intrinsically safe. The use of abundant and inexpensive raw materials like zinc solve the supply chain issues facing lithium-ion while enabling significant cost reductions. Lastly, its similarity to lithium-ion allows for it to use the same manufacturing processes and equipment, allowing for a rapid and low-cost scale up.
Gaining an Edge Through Safety and Supply Chain Security
Given lithium-ion’s thirty-year head start, establishing the credibility of lithium-ion alternatives will necessarily be a slow process. To quickly gain market share, technologies like the zinc-ion battery need to focus on applications where lithium-ion’s safety and supply chain concerns are limiting deployment. Safety is the most urgent need, while supply chain security will become increasingly important throughout the decade.
Its hard to be afraid of lithium-ion batteries given their ubiquity in laptops and cellphones, but the size of batteries needed for stationary energy storage increases safety risks exponentially. When a Samsung Galaxy’s battery catches fire, its enough to cause injury or property damage. A Tesla Powerwall is like having a 1000 Samsung Galaxy’s cramped together in a box. If any of these batteries fail, and this failure causes neighboring ones to fail as well, the result is an inferno that requires specialized firefighting techniques to control. It’s difficult to measure exactly how many unreported fires occur from lithium-ion batteries, but there were around 49 recalls between 2012-2017, impacting over 4 million products. The U.S. Fire Administration also deemed lithium-ion as the source of 195 explosions and fires within roughly seven years. Further, many lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, making it a challenge to monitor exactly which materials are being used and ensure the manufacturing process is fully followed. An intrinsically safe battery like zinc-ion is the only means to be sure that energy storage systems are safe.
The increasing importance of batteries to the electrical grid mean that they are becoming a technology of critical importance. As a result of COVID, many governments have become sensitive to depending on foreign supply chains for critical infrastructure. Zinc-ion batteries use materials that are abundant around the world. The USA, for example, could meet the entirety of its renewable energy storage needs with North American mines.
A Look Ahead to the Future
To help mitigate climate change and facilitate the transition to renewable energy, the world needs batteries that are cheap, safe, long-lasting, and ready to scale. Lithium-ion cannot do this alone, but true alternatives are limited. Zinc-ion development, therefore, is an exciting opportunity that experts in industry and government should pay close attention to. With zinc-ion research rapidly maturing and the first commercial products nearing completion, companies who prioritize safety and supply chain security should incorporate zinc-ion into their product roadmaps.
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