Battery Week: Competitors to Lithium-ion Batteries in the Grid Storage Market

Battery Week: Competitors to Lithium-ion Batteries in the Grid Storage Market

By David Roberts, Canary Media/Volts

Lithium-ion batteries probably have cars locked up, but what about grid storage?

Welcome back to Battery Week — where we use the term “week” somewhat loosely.

Up until now, we’ve been focusing on lithium-on batteries (LIBs) — why they are so importanthow they work, and the varieties of LIBs that are battling it out for the biggest battery market, electric vehicles (EVs).

It’s fairly clear from that discussion that LIBs, in some incarnation, are going to dominate EVs for a long while to come. There is no other commercial battery that can pack as much power into as small a space and lightweight a package. Plus, LIBs have built up a large manufacturing base, driving down prices with scale and industry experience. Their lock on the EV market is likely unbreakable, at least for the foreseeable future.

But there’s another battery market where some competitors hope to get a foothold: grid storage. They think there’s space in that market waiting to be claimed. 

Zinc batteries

Several companies are working on batteries that exchange zinc ions instead of lithium ions — it’s the second-most-popular metal for batteries.

Zinc has the particular advantage of being light and energy-dense like lithium, so with relatively modest adjustments, it can slipstream into the lithium-ion manufacturing process.

Zinc is plentiful, cheaper than lithium, largely benign, and makes batteries that are easier to recycle. Like other lithium alternatives, zinc sacrifices energy density, but makes some of it back up in savings on safety systems at the battery-pack level, thanks to the lack of any need for fire suppression. This puts it in the same markets as lithium iron phosphate (LFP): smaller commuter/city vehicles, robo-taxis, scooters, e-bikes — and energy storage.

Some in the zinc crew have more ambitious designs: “We think we can coexist with lithium-ion and replace lead acid,” says Michael Burz, president and CEO of EnZinc, which has developed a new zinc anode it says can come close to LIBs on energy density. Remember, lead-acid batteries are still ubiquitous. “Forklifts use them. Airplanes. Snowmobiles,” says Burz. “Data centers have huge banks of lead-acid batteries they use for switchover power.” The technology still has a $45 billion global market.

EnZinc thinks it can hit a sweet spot: close to the energy density of LIBs, close to the low cost of lead-acid, safer than either, and good enough to substitute for a big chunk of both.

Zinc anodes are “cathode-agnostic,” so Burz envisions his company becoming an anode supplier, rather than a battery manufacturer, with “Zinc Inside” labels modeled on the “Intel Inside” processor designation. Research is underway on a number of cathodes, from manganese and nickel to — just as with lithium — air. A zinc-air battery “has a system-level specific energy of anywhere between 250 to 350 watt-hours per kilogram,” says Burz, a level well above most LIBs. The trick is making it controllable and rechargeable. There are zinc-air battery companies offering commercial products that claim they’ve solved those problems, such as NantEnergy (formerly Fluidic), which is targeting its zinc-air batteries at off-grid markets in developing countries.

Zinc Battery Developer Enzinc Wins CalSEED Phase II Clean Energy Startup Award

Zinc Battery Developer Enzinc Wins CalSEED Phase II Clean Energy Startup Award

Company wins $450,000 grant, announces prototype surpassed 500 cycles

RICHMOND, Calif.: EnZinc, a clean battery technology developer, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have been published in the prestigious Science magazine on their work to develop a unique three-dimensional (3D) zinc electrode. The research aims to bring a safer, more affordable rechargeable battery to market for electric vehicles, ebikes, and home and grid energy storage.

“This breakthrough in rechargeable battery technology means that zinc has the potential to displace lithium because it is a safer, more affordable, and more readily available material,” said President and CEO of EnZinc, Michael Burz. “Large battery-powered electronics from electric vehicles to home energy storage will be able to be powered by cleaner, fully recyclable zinc-based batteries—and they’ll carry none of the fire risk of lithium-based batteries.”

The report is the culmination of six years of development on a unique 3D zinc sponge structure that for the first time allows zinc, the fourth most mined metal on the planet, to be used as an anode in a rechargeable high-performance battery. The 3D zinc material is inherently safe and totally recyclable, offering a number of advantages over lead acid and lithium ion batteries.

Researchers have tried to make a rechargeable zinc anode since Edison first patented it in the 1900s. However, dendrites—stalactite-like growths that short out a zinc battery when it was recharged—shortened the cycle life of zinc, limiting it to disposable batteries or complex fuel cells. This structure of this new 3D zinc anode eliminates the issue, resulting in a battery that will offer performance comparable to Li-ion batteries with a price more like lead-acid batteries. This new anode can be coupled with various cathode materials to produce a family of batteries for multiple applications ranging from electric vehicles to grid energy storage.

Their work was partially funded from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Program, the remaining funding from the Office of Naval Research and private funding.

Enzinc and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Sign License Deal for New 3D Zinc Battery Technology

Enzinc and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Sign License Deal for New 3D Zinc Battery Technology

From the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Press Office

WASHINGTON, DC:  The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has signed a commercial licensing agreement with Enzinc to commercialize the 3D zinc sponge anode technology in a nickel-zinc battery for certain applications. The license gives Enzinc the exclusive rights to all electric road vehicles (from two wheel to multiwheel), hybrid vehicles, start-stop vehicles, and microgrids/distributed grids up to 60MW.

This technology was revealed in the peer-reviewed Science magazine article dated 28 April 2017. “There is significant interest in our plans to commercialize this technology for two such important areas of the renewable marketplace: electric vehicles and microgrids,” said Michael Burz, CEO and founder of Enzinc. “We look forward to continuing our association with the USNRL, one of the nation’s preeminent research laboratories.”

The 3D Zinc sponge anode technology is the first to enable common, safe and low-cost zinc to be used in a high-performance rechargeable battery. Zinc-based batteries will be as powerful as lithium–based batteries with none of the potential for fire, and will be lighter and less toxic than lead-based batteries. Past attempts to make rechargeable zinc batteries have involved pumped zinc slurries, substantially limiting applications and adding complexity and maintenance issues.