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Montana Company Licenses Lawrence Livermore Zinc Air Fuel Cell Technology

Kalispell, Mont.-based Zinc Air, Inc. (ZAI) has obtained exclusive rights from LLNL for the mechanically rechargeable zinc air fuel cell (US Patent 5,434,020) invented by John Cooper, a retired LLNL chemist, who is on the ZAI technical Board of Advisors.

The Zinc Air Fuel Cell (ZAFC) consumes zinc metal and atmospheric oxygen to produce electricity, and produces a reaction product consisting of a liquid suspension of zinc oxides and potassium zincate in an alkaline electrolyte. Refueling is achieved by replacing the spent electrolyte and adding more zinc pellets. The Zinc/Air Fuel Cell allows for rapid refueling, as opposed to overnight recharging, which makes multiple shifts a reality. With 10 minute refueling, this technology allows battery use up to 24 hours a day, notes ZAI.

Zai
Self-feeding cells. Source: ZAI. Click to enlarge.

The cells are self-feeding. Zinc pellets fall into a narrow opening at the top of each wedge-shaped cell. (Diagram right). Because the cell gap is only a little larger than the particles, the particles do not close pack, even when subjected to strong vibrations. Rather, noted Cooper, particle briding and voids develop, resulting in a low packing density of about 40%. Electrolyte flows upward through the cell and hopper to remove heat and reaction products.

The spent electrolyte can be reprocessed to recover electrolyte and zinc fines, which in turn are pressed into pellets. In a 1995 paper, Cooper noted that the cost of the recovery unit is small compared with the cost of the battery because it operates continuously and hence at a lower power level than the battery. In addition, it lacks the expensive air electrode of the zinc/air battery, adding to the lower cost of the ZAFC solution.

Lower cost is one of the key aspects of the renewed interest by some in zinc air fuel cell technology—which had been explored in the 80s and 90s—propelled by the anticipated demand for efficient, low-cost alternatives to lithium for electric vehicle battery production.

ZAI is the second company to license the LLNL ZAFC technology. Power Air Corporation had earlier secured a license; that license agreement terminated in November 2009. Power Air says it is moving ahead with its own ZAFC design.

In truth, new technology often matures in fits and starts over decades. A previous licensee brought marketing and manufacturing expertise to our inventions. Some of that developmental understanding will seep into new incarnations of the zinc air fuel cell.

—Annemarie Meike, LLNL business development executive

Lithium primarily is found outside the United States. Worldwide resources of zinc total more than 1.8 gigatons—with more than 35% of that in the United States alone.

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. These figures were quoted in a recent white paper by Meridian International Research, which stated, “Lithium supply and future production will be far from adequate to sustain global electric vehicle production.”

At the moment, most in the auto industry are currently looking to lithium batteries as the power solution for electric vehicles, but those batteries are manufactured primarily outside of the United States and are not cost effective for widespread use. There is enough readily available zinc just in the United States to produce billions of these batteries.

—ZAI Co-Founder and President Dave Wilkins

ZAI 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.

Korea-based Leo Motors is also commercializing a ZAFC technology for use as a range extender in its vehicles. (Earlier post.)

Resources

Comments

ejj

I see a potential application of this for rail, I just don't know how much energy is produced by the design. Theoretically you could have the fuel in rail cars behind the engine(s), with some kind of engineered system to get the fuel to the engine(s) and a waste collection system to pump the waste to tanks integrated with the dry fuel storage or somewhere else located on the engine. If only small amounts of zinc are needed, maybe the entire system could fit into the size of a locomotive engine car. It might work for industrial applications like forklifts also, where they all go to a central charging area to get fresh batteries/fuel. I don't know how practical this would be for the commercial automotive market though.

Reel$$

I like there is a business in Kalispell Montana. We need more startups operating on the fringes of big urban areas to make a contribution to the rebirth of manufacturing in NA.

The design has challenges similar to fuel cells running on consumables like H2 bonded metal hydrides. In each case re-charging requires recycling the spent slurry and injecting new fuel pellets.

If the recharge process could be reduced to a single cartridge replacement - there may be commercial value to these batteries. Presumably you could carry a couple spares in the vehicle and keep a couple at home.

But it can get a bit messy and may be a bit like changing fluids in old copy machines. It works, but can be darned sloppy. And you would need to recycle the slurry cartridge at a special depot somewhere.

ai_vin

@ejj

Why do that when you can power an E-train with overhead cables? Save the use of fuel cells for when you CAN'T predict the route the vehicle's driver will take.

wintermane2000

Ai_win in america there are large spans of track they cant run lines through because of weather and remoteness. Mind you they mostly are looking into biodiesel as thats a much saner way to fuel a train.

SJC

I could see this for fork lifts of fleet vehicles. You have to have the refueling equipment, but the fact that it can be done in minutes and ready for another shift is a plus.

Darius

The atractivness of the method depends on how spent electrolyte shall be recovered. I don't know for sure, but it might be thermal recovery process. In that case the recovery process could be efficiently integrated into power generation process utilizing wast heat.

SJC

Electricity is required to recycle the electrolyte. This is why it is more a flow battery than a fuel/air cell.

ejj

In reading the story on the livermore site (https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2010/NR-10-09-02.html) it said the waste zinc is 100 percent recycleable. So for a nationwide rail company like BNSF, they could build a central recycling facility for all their operations. "Battery cars" could be self-contained units with the raw fuel and waste solution collection system. These could be connected to the engine cars with special cables. You would just add engines and/or battery cars depending on the size of the haul or distance to be travelled. There would be a significant initial investment in the engines and battery cars, but if the zinc is 100% recycleable, there probably wouldn't be any major costs after that. The recycling center could be set up to run off of wind turbines and also zinc air batteries (since the recycling process is energy intensive from what I've read). The system could eventually pay for itself as diesel costs disappeared, and it would probably be a lot cheaper than electrifying the rail network for e-trains. A company like BNSF could eventually charge less to clients & crush competitors on price, yet still be very profitable since they wouldn't be subject to the ridiculous price fluctuations of diesel & occasional high profit-margin-killing diesel prices.

Another idea would be to have the self-contained battery system in shipping containers, so it could be a truly mobile power production system that could be moved around by semi-trucks also. The military would potentially be very interested in such a system.

HealthyBreeze

What's the well-to-wheels efficiency of using zinc to store energy?.

I say this because I've heard that it takes only 5% as much energy to melt and recast aluminum as it takes to refine aluminum with electricity...so I assume it similarly akes a huge amount of electricity to convert the zinc products back into metalic form.

Zhukova

I wouldn't bet on Zinc-Air. The specific energy is only about double that of Li-Ion. If the mechanical hopper system is anything like those is copy machines, you may have to call the technician once a month. Zinc may be cheaper, but Li-Ion seems to have a lot of potential for improvement.

"it would take 180 years of lithium production to produce those same batteries." That doesn't mean anything. It's based on current production. If demand increases, production of Li will increase too (and probably get cheaper)

SJC

This has its applications, but the average car may not be one of them. Fleet vehicles that can share the cost of recharging could be one application. The economics of such an operation would have to carry the day, not many companies would opt for this if there are better alternatives and there are.

Bill

I think zinc-air batteries would make a good range extender but I'd rather have a rechargeable battery as my primary power source.

Gorr

Hurry, free electricity in a car and for a low cost for the fuelcell and associated electrolyte. Im interrested to buy but i would have preferred a water battery because it don't consume oxygen into the air contrary to this zinc fuelcell. The zinc don't include the needed oxygen contrary to water that recombine easier with more energy and with hassles and it include the exact ratio of needed oxygen.

So do a water battery instead, call me when it's ready and put that on sale via paypal or ship it directly to my home and i will send a check after, thks.

DaveD

a.b....gorr, is that you? I'd recognize that rambling nuttiness anywhere!

ejj

I can't envision this being any more complicated than current conventional diesel locomotive engines. The engine car becomes a big box that houses electric motors. The battery car could be compartmentalized into a reservoir tank for the electrolyte and the remainder could hold the zinc/cathode/anode contraption. A pump, like a radiator pump, would be needed to circulate the electrolyte. Or maybe depending on the energy output, it could just be engineered to fit in the space where the diesel engines were in the engine car.

ai_vin

Ai_win in america there are large spans of track they cant run lines through because of weather and remoteness.

So you're telling you don't think America can do what Russia has already done?
http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Electric_Freight_Rail
"The Russians electrified the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 2002 and to the Arctic port of Murmansk in 2005."

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4301

wintermane2000

We are talking about spans of track where if they put up lines they will all come down that winter. Thats very spendy to repair.

ai_vin

And it doesn't snow in Siberia?
Dude, they've even got electrified rail in Finland; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Finland
I wonder how the lines stay up during a winter in Helsinki, let alone Rovaniemi (which is situated close to the Arctic Circle).

wintermane2000

Just because something is up north doesnt mean the weather totaly sucks.

I dont know all the details I just remember a show on the rail lines and how nasty it is in some places in the us.

Darius

SJC,

May be you are right. But common sense says that Zn production process is recovering matal from oxide by simply melting. Why it should not work in this case.

Darius

SJC,

I checked wikipedia. Zinc could be recovered from Zinc oxide at 1800 F reacting with carbon or in carbon monoxide atmosphere. The process is convinient for CO2 production or sequstration. But on other hand Zn resources are limited and there are reserves only antil 2050.


ai_vin

::facepalm::

Dude, seriously? Russian winters stop armies!
Look, when I say America could electrfy its railroads you don't have to take my word for it; it's the experts who are saying it can be done.

And it's not like America doesn't have experience with electric rail. Up until end of WW2 every major American city had electric streetcars and commuters trains, in all kinds of climates.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railroad_electrification_in_the_United_States

And then there's the ill fated Milwaukee Road.
http://wapedia.mobi/en/Chicago,_Milwaukee,_St._Paul_and_Pacific
In 1914 "The Milwaukee soon found that operation of steam locomotives over the mountain passes was difficult, with winter temperatures that reached −40 °F. Electrification seemed to be the answer, especially with abundant hydroelectric power in the mountains and a ready source of copper on-line at Anaconda, Montana. In 1914, electrification began between Harlowton, Montana and Avery, Idaho. The first electric train ran in 1915 between Three Forks and Deer Lodge, Montana. The system used a 3,000 volt direct-current (DC) overhead line."...

Alain

I wonder if the efficiency would be any better than in a hydrogen fuel cell with a reformer, combined with synthetic hydrocarbons. (Synthetic : made from CO2 and H2O and electricity)
In the Zn/air battery, electricity or heat would be used to reduce oxidized Zn to metallic Zn. This Zn is oxidized again in the fuel cell.
With synthetic hydrocarbon fuel, exactly the same happens : electricity or heat is used to reduce CO2 to hydrocarbons, which are oxidized again in a fuel cell or reformer.

The difference is that in a system using hydrocarbons, you don't need the complex recycling system, because you can use the atmosphere as a transport medium to return the CO2 to the recycling centre.

This is not an excuse to continue using fossils in a fuelcell system, but these fuel cells could easily be implemented using classical fuel, independent of the source (fossil or synthetic).

There is enough CO2 in the atmosphere to make the fuel for trillions of cars. You don't have to mine anything, and CO2 is available to everybody.
The only thing you need is energy to reduce the CO2 to a hydrocarbon, exactly like in the Zn/air fuel cell.

By the way, Zn could be reduced only using (solar or nuclear) heat
http://solar.web.psi.ch/data/research/zno/roca/

Arnold

Zukhova and Bill,
Seem to have their heads screwed on, the only advantages with this concept is fast charge and potentially lower weight through higher energy density especially in higher power applications.
For the general motoring public, the lithium cells are well on track and easily and economically rechargable.

HarveyD

Electric suburban trains run flawlessly 365days/year almost 1000 Km North of NY City and it could do as well 2000 Km North of NYC. Let's not exaggerate on negative effects of cold and snow on electrified trains.

Why do we run down what we don't have and others have. We don't always know best.

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