Batteries Zinc-air battery could replace lithium-ion

Published on May 30th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


New Zinc-Air Battery Could Pack Twice The Power Of Lithium-Ion

May 30th, 2013 by  

Researchers at Stanford University are working on a new rechargeable zinc-air battery that could provide a low cost energy storage alternative to the current favorite, lithium-ion. Zinc-air batteries have great promise due to the cheapness and abundance of their basic materials along with a relatively high energy density, but until now the technology has been bedeviled by “sluggish” catalytic reactions. Solving that problem could greatly expand the market for wind and solar power, including electric vehicle batteries and utility-scale energy storage.

Zinc-air battery could replace lithium-ion

Zinc -air battery by Yanguang Li, Stanford University.

Lithium-Ion Still #1

Before we dig into the Stanford zinc-air battery, let’s be clear that lithium-ion batteries are not going away any time soon. Though the Stanford team claims a much higher energy density for zinc-air there is plenty of room for improvement in li-ion battery technology, one recent example being the development of a new electrode that resolves the notorious “lithium traffic jam” issue.

If anything, the hitch will probably be the issue of lithium supply. Currently, the US depends heavily on imported lithium, creating a significant vulnerability to global market swings.

There should be some improvement in the near term, with the recent discovery of a huge lithium deposit in Wyoming and a coordinated effort by the Obama Administration to boost domestic lithium production. However, over the long term it’s tough to see how lithium alone could provide a stable platform for the exploding electric vehicle market, among other uses.

The Stanford Zinc-Air Solution

Zinc-air batteries work by churning ambient oxygen (aka “air”) with zinc in a liquid alkaline electrolyte to create an electrical charge. As the battery discharges it produces zinc oxide, which regenerates into zinc when the battery is recharged.

Problems with the technology include the aforementioned sluggishness of conventional catalysts used in zinc-air batteries, as well as the durability of the zinc electrodes.

To resolve those issues, the Stanford team came up with a new line of low-cost catalysts, including a nanocrystal-carbon nanotube combination as well as metal oxides sourced from non-precious materials.

The result is a zinc-air battery that uses a cobalt-oxide air catalyst for discharging and a nickel-iron hydroxide catalyst for recharging, which according to lead researcher Hongjie Dai, has a “high specific energy density more than twice that of lithium-ion technology.”

Zinc-Air Batteries, Here And Now

Dai foresees some additional obstacles in the Stanford team’s path to commercializing the technology, but in the mean time zinc-air batteries are already marching into the market.

One company we’ve been following here at CleanTechnica is Eos Energy Storage, which has been working to resolve the zinc-air durability issue.

Just last month, Bloomberg reported that Eos has reached a deal with New York City’s electricity supplier, Consolidated Edison, to test the company’s utility scale zinc-air battery.

According to Bloomberg reporter Andrew Herndon, the test will take place next year under a $250,000 matching grant from the New York State Research and Development Authority.

To give you an idea of how “interesting” zinc-air technology could get in terms of a low-cost alternative for utilities to provide power during peak use periods, Herndon reports that batteries are competitive with the existing system of extra power plants, transmission lines and distribution points at a price point of about $300 per kWh, and Eos intends to beat that by a wide margin, coming in at only $160 per kWh.

As for the battery’s basic materials, air is air, and zinc is found plentifully in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Australia.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Alan Parker

    Please stop promoting the idea the supply of lithium is or ever will be an issue for lithium batteries. It makes up a tiny fraction of the cost of a battery and even if that were not so there are plenty of other sources that are not currently being utilized. Not to mention the fact that the lithium is not consumed in any case so could be recycled.

    Research how much the cost of cobalt contributes to the cost of some lithium battery chemistries if you really want something to worry about!

    Ironically cobalt is one of the materials they are using in this new battery so that may have a significant impact on cost though presumably the price per KWh is still going to be very good.

  • RGP13

    My sunday drive to church covers 50 miles and 60 minutes. The drive home is the same. Does somone have a battery that will do both parts – there is a service station at each end but recharging takes longer?
    So far I will stick to gasoline.

    • Bob_Wallace

      What are your other six days like?

      One option, not cheap, is the Tesla S. The lowest priced model will get you to church and back with range to spare and in style.

      Another, and cheaper, is the Chevy Volt. It’s got a ~40 mile electric range which might cover your ‘other six day’ needs or at least most of it. And then the (quite efficient) gas engine would take over and give you as much range as you would ever want.

      Do some math. You may be surprised how driving with electricity can save you a bunch of money.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Want to share some info about what you’re driving now and your other six day driving pattern?

      It might be fun to figure out if a Tesla S or Volt might work out for you.

      EVs don’t work for all. Yet. They don’t work for me. A trip to the grocery store is about 120 miles RT. I’m a low annual mileage driver (<6,000) miles per year. And I really have to have 4wd.

    • tibi stibi

      first i would loby with the church to install a charging point. for the church it could be an extra attraction. moneywize and for their responsibility to the environment.

      if not there are a lot of cars which can do more than 100 miles. like the tesla, nissan , ford and others

  • Bob_Wallace

    “If anything, the hitch will probably be the issue of lithium supply.”

    That’s an issue of the amount of lithium being processed today. It has nothing to do with the world’s supply of lithium or how much we could process if/when demand increases.

    • Otis11

      Any more information on this? Is there enough Lithium to put 200 miles worth of batteries in every car in the world? (I realize this is completely unnecessary, but for the purpose of discussion cars with smaller batteries may be offset by other uses for lithium)

      • Bob_Wallace

        Lithium is the 25th highest occurring element in the Earth’s crust. Plenty.

        Apparently when the topic of lithium batteries for EVs first got going someone mistook lithium “reserves”, the amount of extra processed lithium available as the amount that could be processed if there was demand.

        And they, or someone else, used the small quantity price of lithium rather than the bulk cost to calculate that there are hundreds of dollars worth of lithium in a LEAF battery pack.

        Here’s something I wrote up a while back….

        The 100 mile Nissan Leaf uses 4kg of lithium in its batteries. Let’s say magic happens and between 2015 and 2035 we put 1.2 billion 200 mile range EVs on the world’s roads, each using 8kg of lithium in their batteries. (And that’s if range increase comes only from more batteries rather than the more likely improved anodes and cathodes.)

        That would mean that in that 20 year period we would need to produce 480,000 metric tons of lithium per year.

        And after that we could just recycle what we’ve already extracted.

        At 20 mg lithium per kg of Earth’s crust, lithium is the 25th most abundant element. Nickel and lead have about the same abundance. There are approximately 39 million tonnes of accessible lithium in the Earth’s crust. An 81 year supply.

        Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Portugal and Zimbabwe have roughly 13,000,000 metric tons of lithium that can be extracted. That’s a 27 year supply.

        Bolivia has 5.4 million of the 13 million tons. Over 11 years.

        There are approximately 230,000,000,000 tons of lithium in seawater. A 479,167 year supply.


        Prices for high-purity, battery-grade lithium hydroxide range from $6,000 to $7,000 per tonne

        That’s $6 to $7 per kg (1,000 kg in tonne) or $24 to $35 for the lithium in a Leaf.

        The cost of extracting lithium from seawater is 5x or less than from lithium salts. If we had to use lithium extracted from seawater it would increase lithium costs to $120 to $140 (or less) for the entire battery pack.

        • Boris

          Lithium batteries are not the solution, short lifespan, and is not enough lithium in the world to go around, besides that all that energy that goes into production, this battery produces more greenhouse gas in the environment in a lifetime then of a coal fired power stations, just like grid solar power does.

        • Otis11

          Wow, great info.

          So that says, worst case scenario (omitting the possibility of a cost spike cause by a temporary demand spike) the long term cost of the Leaf’s lithium battery pack should not rise over $140 ever… even if every country refused to export lithium to the US.

          Now, granted there are all sorts of other costs… but are any of those material costs? Or just manufacturing and engineering costs?

          Are there any other materials that have the potential to derail our EV conversion? (and grid storage conversion?)

          (Such as Cobalt?) I’d look it up, but it’s relatively hard to find reliable, up-to-date information when you’re unfamiliar with a topic… especially when people intentionally put out FUD.

          • Bob_Wallace

            There are new lithium processing plants starting up already. I expect supply has a good chance of staying ahead of demand.

            We’ve got lithium in the US. We use to extract/process it but China undercut the world market and our plant(s) closed down. Someone is working on extracting lithium from geothermal waste water at the Salton Sea plants. That brine apparently has a high lithium concentration.

            Other plants are opening around the world. I think both Canada and Australia are getting ready to process lithium.

            Engineering costs, I would imagine would go down quickly. Same with manufacturing, a bunch of battery factories have already been built.

            Labor input should be small – fork lift drivers and sales/clerical staff mostly. Manufacturing should be highly automated. (Obviously techies to keep the machines running.)

            Energy costs might be a factor. Some batteries have to be “baked” for a while. But I also read something about quicker/less energy use by microwaving them. Don’t know if that’s for real.

            Then – we might be using less lithium. I saw this a couple of days ago –

            “On Wednesday this week at the annual conference of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, GM’s head of global R&D let his guard down slightly in saying prototype electric cars now being evaluated on U.S. test tracks have triple the energy density of a Chevrolet Volt, and close to double that of a Tesla Model S.A Volt has about 140 watt-hours per kilogram energy density in its LG Chem lithium-ion T-shaped battery pack. Tesla’s “skateboard” chassis now uses Panasonic cells that reportedly deliver as much as 240 Wh/kg, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said to expect more.

            And so has GM in so many words.

            “Today there are prototypes out there with 400 Watt-hours per kilogram,” said Dr. J. Gary Smyth, executive director of Global Research and Development, General Motors Company.

            Smyth added the mystery batteries will cost much less than batteries in today’s electric cars and they’ll have a “big impact” on the auto industry and “it completely changes the equation” on cost, range, and vehicle packaging.


            It’s very likely that the 400 Wh/kg batteries are Envira batteries. It says so in the article plus they match the claims of Envira on their web site and GM bought into Envira several months back.

            If that’s the case then we’d need about a LEAF’s amount of lithium for a 200 mile range EV.

            Now, I don’t know how much to trust that article. I haven’t seen any other sites pick it up. But I have been following Envira for at least a couple of years and they seem to be straight shooters.

          • Otis11

            So we’ll be on top of the lithium crunch – sounds good.

            Gotta do some research on Envira. 400 Wh/kg is great – just need to see the price. Could shake things up a bit.

            Thanks again!

          • Bob_Wallace

            They state $125/kWh. That’s less than half of the lowest cost EV batteries I’ve heard of.

            Take a look at the graph on this page.


            Are they blowing smoke? Possibly. But if the GM stuff is right then things sound very promising.

            (I think I spelled their name wrong earlier. No ‘r’.)

          • Otis11

            Ah, found it. Busy day, hopefully I’ll have a chance to dig in tomorrow…

            But $125/kWh… WHAT?!?! I thought the goal that they (was it the Obama administration or who set that goal?) was $300/kWh… or am I mis-remembering something?

            I must be mis-remembering…

          • Bob_Wallace

            Nope, you’re not mis-remembering at all. People have been wishing for getting under $300 soon. Berger predicted $250 by 2014 and I don’t think anyone believed him.

            The big hope was that we would get down to $200/kWh in the next few years. That would make EVs as cheap as ICEVs. These folks are saying $125 now.

            I’m not clear on their cycle life. They say after 300 cycles the batteries are at 91% capacity. Unless there’s a cliff following 300 then everything is great.

            Should be able to make a 200 mile range EV for about the same price as a LEAF and economy of scale would pull it down into the low $20k range. Assume subsidies go away then.

          • Otis11

            Ah, now I’m not a battery expert so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe that the capacity loss of a battery follows an S-curve: It loses fair portion in the first 10-15% of it’s life, then levels of for the majority of it’s useful life, and finally goes completely dead very quickly.

            Now, that’s a bit of a mixed bag for us – we only use them in EVs for a portion of that flat-ish part (which is why they make such great grid storage when re-purposed). But it does tell us that there’s reasonable hope that if it’s at 91% after 300 charges, it will hold above 80% for a few thousand. I’m interested to see how these work out – Hope things sort them selves out by 2015… cuz that’s about the time I’ll be in the market again.

            Thanks for the info – exciting field to follow.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m bothered by the lack of information past ‘91% at 300 cycles’. They’ve had way more time than would be needed to perform several hundred more cycles.

            The fact that GM apparently is road testing them now is encouraging.

            And perhaps they followed SOP for startups. Advertise your successes until you obtain funding and then shut up and develop in secret so that you don’t give your competition any help.

            That seems to have happened with Ambri. Sadoway did a lot of public stuff, got backers, and went pretty much silent.

            One never knows whether things are going well or failure is underway until a product appears. Or doesn’t.

            Eos was quite for a long time and then announced their ConEd deal.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “Are there any other materials that have the potential to derail our EV conversion? (and grid storage conversion?)”

            There are multiple battery technologies. Zinc-air is coming on strong. That would be cheaper than lithium-ion. Zinc-air might scale down to EV weight.

            Aquion’s batteries are going on the New York/ConEd grid in early 2014. The use a sodium sulfate based salt water electrolyte.

            For grid storage the most interesting (to me) is Ambri’s liquid metal battery. It’s working in prototype and they are working to bring the best ‘mix’ of materials to market. Even with the materials they’ve moved on past it would probably give us “dirt cheap” storage.

            Then there are non-battery grid storage solutions being developed. I think we’re fine. Just need a bit more time to sort things out and figure the most affordable.

          • Otis11

            Well yes, there are a bunch of possible/emerging technologies, but to my knowledge the only proven, commercial battery technology that has significant economic viability is Li-ion/Li-polymer (and to a lesser degree NiMH). Is there another type I’m missing (that’s already commercialized)? And what materials could potentially throw a wrench in the plan with the commercialized tech?

            (I do realize that if even 1 of these emerging battery technologies succeed it would alleviate much of this concern, and there are many alternative storage solutions, but I outline the worst case – aka no tech breakthrough – and then plan for the probable case.)

            Don’t think I’ve heard of Aquion before – Have to look into that one. I’ll also give a little more time to researching Ambri’s then too.

            As always, thanks for the informative reply.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Eos is doing zinc-air with ConEd. I think I got that wrong too.


            Good video on the liquid metal battery. After the talk Sadoway set up the company Ambri to manufacture the batteries.

            There’s some good stuff on their web site.

            Worst case for grid storage, if nothing else appears, is that we build a lot of pump-up. That’s both doable and affordable.

          • Otis11

            I actually don’t think we need much more storage, unless it just becomes cheap enough to be more economical than what’s currently on the market.

            Right now it makes much more sense to make a smart grid with demand response – AC units that have thermal storage, fridges that communicate with the grid to shift their load by a fraction of an hour or so, and water heaters that shift load by multiple hours to use demand when it’s available.

            Pair that with good connections between grids (three amigos is a good start), smart renewable development (use the tech that best fits the demand curve to produce the most valuable power, not necessarily the cheapest power) and then implement “time of use pricing” and “value of solar” generation pricing to incentivise people to tweak their living habits to take advantage of the natural fluxes. Throw in some smart EV chargers that can interface with the grid and I think we’re there – no extra conventional storage necessary – it’s all built in to the technology we use every day at no extra cost. (well, cost of transition, but no running cost. And many of these components will be replaced over the years anyway, so minimal long term cost – factor in efficiency levels and it’s likely a significant savings for most)

            Battery tech advancing and becoming more economical will shift how much of the above mentioned technologies get implemented and to what extent – that’s the information I’m trying to glean from this conversation… but I don’t know that we have enough information to make accurate predictions at this point – but you’re more informed on this particular point than I. Care to share?

  • Wilson Johnson

    Bigger fish to fry. Doubling battery technology would make home ‘off-grid’ energy a viable reality. Theoretically cost would remain as the only preventative variable. Less than 1000 sq.ft of ‘current’ solar panels & a small windmill could easily power a 2000 sq.ft home for up to 3 days without much input from either. That is a game changer. Solar may be making efficiency strides soon also, it may be very soon that power companies will be buying from consumers to supply their big users.

    • Artur

      power companies will never buy from costumets men… because everything is cos efective they can make on a bigger scale more effective… the only reason they DO NOT invest in wind energy is because its a joke technology, standing only by gow. funding .

      • Wilson Johnson

        No wind energy is not a joke! Generation isn’t and has never been the problem. Storage and consumption are the issue. My electric bill is 1/4 what my neighbors spend and I don’t live frugally just smart. Anything not ‘in-use’ is turned off, no incandescent lights anywhere. Why would you power your fridge at 3am when you’re asleep? Minimal heat input and you’re not opening it, so put it on a timer. Slow down your thought process and your typing, don’t buy the mindless hype you hear from media or morons. You’re wrong about PC’s not buying power from consumers-if you make it cheap and sell it cheap it doesn’t matter who you are, it will be bought. BTW it is already happening.

  • FactsAreFun

    OK, how about some more beef? How many charge-discharge cycles do these cells survive? What’s the round-trip efficiency? Cell voltage? Current density?

  • J_JamesM

    Sooner or later, battery technology is going to strike gold. These little incremental and difficult-to-market improvements have been good, and eventually one of them’s going to become a real game changer.

    Imagine a future in which your remote-controlled toy helicopter can fly for 20 minutes instead of 7. In which your smartphone can last you two or three days at a time.

    Oh, and also the trifling matter of fundamentally transforming the American auto market and providing a means to realistically store renewable energy.

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