Fifteen years ago John Cooper, PhD working at Lawrence Livermore National Lab had worked out a zinc air battery that could be refueled so to speak. Actually what Mr. Cooper had invented was a zinc air fuel cell power unit based on the properties of the zinc air battery.  It remains a vastly intriguing high potential concept.

After a prior licensee had left the technology back to Lawrence Livermore another firm, Zinc Air Inc. of Kalispell, Montana has picked up another exclusive license. This time the board of advisors includes the aforementioned John Cooper, PhD, Jacob Jorne, PhD from the University of Rochester, Michael McKubre, PhD at SRI International, Richard Fioravanti of KEMA, Joseph Monkowski, PhD, and Dave Rose from Honeywell.  Zinc Air is in discussions with multiple fleet vehicle manufacturers to develop products for their immediate needs.  The company intends to begin development and testing in late 2010 with full-scale field-testing in the second quarter of 2011.

Zinc Air Fuel Cell Component Flow. Click image for the largest view.

In operation, the fuel cell consumes all of the zinc and is operationally quiet, providing instantaneous electrical energy with no greenhouse gas emissions. It also doesn’t contain any of the toxic elements found in lithium batteries or other battery chemistries.  The waste material is zinc oxide a fully and endlessly recyclable material that’s non-toxic.

Simply put the zinc air process just reacts with atmospheric oxygen to release energy.  What the Cooper design does is form a two-part process.  The fuel cell part delivers power on demand.  The recycler releases the oxygen back into the atmosphere, cleans up the zinc and electrolyte for reuse and reforms the zinc as a “fuel” pellet.  A review of the available material hints that the process is better than 50% efficient at using the electricity from the recycling side.  On the fuel cell side some heat is getting lost.  It’s still better than internal combustion, and uses an electrical generation source for the original energy.

The lure is the price of zinc and where it’s found.  Worldwide resources of zinc total more than 1.8 gigatons – with more than 35 percent of that in the United States alone.  Zinc Air Co-Founder and President Dave Wilkins says, “There is enough readily available zinc just in the United States to produce billions of these batteries.”  Lithium on the other hand is primarily found outside the United States.  A recent white paper by Meridian International Research stated, “Lithium supply and future production will be far from adequate to sustain global electric vehicle production.”  Global zinc production in 21 months would be sufficient to produce one billion 10 kWh zinc air batteries – by contrast it would take 180 years of lithium production to produce those same batteries.

That’s quite a contrast.  It also can be a basis for a crash electrification program for light transport.  You want electric cars and no oil imports?  Cooper’s zinc air fuel cell is the viable answer for today.

Dr. Cooper points out, “In the short-term, this new technology has the potential to positively impact fleets of electric vehicles, such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, that combine high daily usage, low-power requirements, and an in-place service infrastructure.” There is an enormous market for lightweight, low power, zero-emission delivery vehicles that can operate multiple shifts. Rapid refueling – as opposed to overnight recharging – makes multiple shifts a reality. With 10-minute refueling, this technology allows battery use up to 24 hours a day.  To start the fleets can install recycling units at the central locations while the market considers or adopts a transition to recycling at local filling stations.

The fuel cell is an elegant and simple design.  The elementary graphic shows just how the zinc particles shrink as the outer zinc erodes away in the power production process.  The zinc fuel is nothing more than sand sized particles of zinc.  The waste is zinc oxide dissolved in the electrolyte.

Zinc Fuel Flows in the Fuel Cell. Click image for the largest view.

Zinc Air Fuel Cell Pellets. This the full size image.

It all sounds wonderful.  But the catches are the apparatus is still large and bulky, no manufacturing effort is underway just yet to miniaturize and compact the design. That may well come.  Another is the zinc air battery isn’t as high a voltage as the competition by about a third – a 1 volt zinc air compares to a 1.5 volt alternative.  Not a big deal, but the zinc system needs more cells to generate equivalent volts.

But the zinc air system has huge advantages.  The watt out put is significant and much more than competitive.  The weight is better than the competition by a significant margin.  The system can be topped off, like filling a third empty gas tank, zinc air has a good temperature working range, the costs are already heading down and the operating cost is a function for most situations, the price of grid power.

Moreover the idea of using zinc allows a certain ‘hedging’ for the cost of recycling.  Where power costs vary over the day or during the year an inventory of zinc can be used to hoard up cheap, never goes bad, non ignitable fuel for the expensive times.  That idea has powerful potential. One could even move the prepared zinc pellet fuel from a low cost location to a high priced one.  The possibilities and opportunities may be endless with human innovation.

It’s too soon to see if all the technical details are absolutely solved.  Or to speculate on a home or small business sized recycler.  But it’s a certainty that Dr. Cooper’s original idea is gathering steam.  The technology is way too workable to be overlooked and the economics are superb.

Not even lithium can compare to zinc in an air battery.   But for those working on a pure zinc air rechargeable battery the technical heights are still high steep climbs.  Dr. Cooper’s zinc fuel cell is an idea well worth serious consideration from the personal standpoint as well as up to national energy security.


22 Comments so far

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  12. Cortland on November 15, 2010 3:51 PM

    Some years ago I was working at what was then a fairly well known maker (you’ve got questions?) of desktop and laptop computers. I remember we once tried a Zinc-Air battery about the size of a school lunch-box. Very long service life, but the size was apparently a turn-off. I like this one for for emergency power, myself. We’ll see!

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