Yes, you heard that right. ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, is behind a new low cost, high efficiency zinc battery that will be manufactured in West Harlem. While not exactly known as a hotbed of advanced battery manufacturing, West Harlem is home to a redevelopment initiative called the Manhattanville Factory District, and the technology is homegrown, too. The new battery was developed at the City University of New York (CUNY) Energy Institute, located just across the way.
The company Urban Electric Power is the private sector partner in this endeavor, and as the factory cranks out its GreenCat brand batteries it will also double as an R&D facility and testbed for new, more sustainable battery technology.
It Takes A Village To Raise An Advanced Battery
Hey, we built this! The new Urban Electric Power (UEP) facility is a public-private endeavor. The facility received more than $1.5 million in state economic development resources and another $500,000 in tax credits to be based on job creation.
That’s on top of the support the project received in the R&D stages, primarily through the public institution CUNY, and also through ARPA-E, which awarded almost $3 million to the CUNY Energy Institute to develop the technology for grid-scale commercial production.
What’s Behind the “Green” Advanced Battery
As described by ARPA-E, the project is designed to take the cheap, abundant and nontoxic ingredients that go into conventional disposable batteries and translate them into fully rechargeable batteries.
That would be zinc and manganese. The advantage of zinc as an electrode material, aside from its low cost, is its high energy density, safety, and reliability. Zinc is also 100 percent recyclable.
However, zinc and manganese both present challenges when it comes to rechargeable batteries. Zinc has a tendency to form haphazard filaments called dendrites when recharged, which is an obvious fail in terms of performance, and manganese becomes an inefficient energy storage medium when recharged.
The CUNY Energy Institute has been making progress on both of those fronts, and achieved a successful prototype last year consisting of 36 interconnected flow-assisted cells. The ultimate goal is to achieve a longer cycle life than lithium-ion batteries, at a fraction of the cost, while avoiding the sustainability issues associated with nickel-cadmium batteries.
UEP’s GreenCat Batteries
So far, UEP has developed two commercial batteries under the GreenCat brand. The GreenCat Eco battery uses CUNY’s ARPA-E supported technology featuring a manganese dioxide cathode. That won’t be ready for production until next year, and in the meantime the company is kicking off this year with GreenCat Power, based on a zinc-nickel oxide flow-assisted battery system that was also developed at the CUNY Energy Institute.
That’s just the beginning, as UEP foresees a wide variety of applications for its future batteries.
On a small scale, the new batteries would improve the capability to reclaim waste energy from vehicles, through regenerative braking systems. In particular, UEP is working on a system for high-traffic areas that would improve gas mileage by more than 10 percent while reducing emissions.
On a grid scale, the batteries would provide a relatively inexpensive system for storing energy, particularly wind power and other forms of renewable energy, during off peak hours.
Onwards and Upwards For Zinc
The UEP partnership is by no means the only zinc based, advanced battery system in the works. Stanford, for example, is developing a zinc-air battery, and a company called Zinc Air, Inc is working on a zinc-iron redox flow battery (name change is coming soon).
Note: this post has been updated to correct the type of battery Zinc Air, Inc is working on.