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High-Energy Batteries Coming to Market

Rechargeable zinc-air batteries can store three times the energy of a lithium-ion battery.

A Swiss company says it has developed rechargeable zinc-air batteries that can store three times the energy of lithium ion batteries, by volume, while costing only half as much. ReVolt, of Staefa, Switzerland, plans to sell small “button cell” batteries for hearing aids starting next year and to incorporate its technology into ever larger batteries, introducing cell-phone and electric bicycle batteries in the next few years. It is also starting to develop large-format batteries for electric vehicles.

Battery unpacked: This graphic illustrates the multilayered structure of a ReVolt rechargeable zinc-air battery. From top to bottom: the battery cover, which lets in air; a porous air electrode; the interface between electrodes; the zinc electrode; the casing.

The battery design is based on technology developed at SINTEF, a research institute in Trondheim, Norway. ReVolt was founded to bring it to market and so far has raised 24 million euros in investment. James McDougall, the company’s CEO, says that the technology overcomes the main problem with zinc-air rechargeable batteries–that they typically stop working after relatively few charges. If the technology can be scaled up, zinc-air batteries could make electric vehicles more practical by lowering their costs and increasing their range.

Unlike conventional batteries, which contain all the reactants needed to generate electricity, zinc-air batteries rely on oxygen from the atmosphere to generate current. In the late 1980s they were considered one of the most promising battery technologies because of their high theoretical energy-storage capacity, says Gary Henriksen, manager of the electrochemical energy storage department at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The battery chemistry is also relatively safe because it doesn’t require volatile materials, so zinc-air batteries are not prone to catching fire like lithium-ion batteries.

Because of these advantages, nonrechargeable zinc-air batteries have long been on the market. But making them rechargeable has been a challenge. Inside the battery, a porous “air” electrode draws in oxygen and, with the help of catalysts at the interface between the air and a water-based electrolyte, reduces it to form hydroxyl ions. These travel through an electrolyte to the zinc electrode, where the zinc is oxidized–a reaction that releases electrons to generate a current. For recharging, the process is reversed: zinc oxide is converted back to zinc and oxygen is released at the air electrode. But after repeated charge and discharge cycles, the air electrode can become deactivated, slowing or stopping the oxygen reactions. This can be due, for example, to the liquid electrolyte being gradually pulled too far into the pores, Henriksen says. The battery can also fail if it dries out or if zinc builds up unevenly, forming branch-like structures that create a short circuit between the electrodes.

ReVolt says it has developed methods for controlling the shape of the zinc electrode (by using certain gelling and binding agents) and for managing the humidity within the cell. It has also tested a new air electrode that has a combination of carefully dispersed catalysts for improving the reduction of oxygen from the air during discharge and for boosting the production of oxygen during charging. Prototypes have operated well for over one hundred cycles, and the company’s first products are expected to be useful for a couple of hundred cycles. McDougall hopes to increase this to between 300 and 500 cycles, which will make them useful for mobile phones and electric bicycles.

For electric vehicles, ReVolt is developing a novel battery structure that resembles that of a fuel cell. Its first batteries use two flat electrodes, which are comparable in size. In the new batteries, one electrode will be a liquid–a zinc slurry. The air electrodes will be in the form of tubes. To generate electricity, the zinc slurry, which is stored in one compartment in the battery, is pumped through the tubes where it’s oxidized, forming zinc oxide and releasing electrons. The zinc oxide then accumulates in another compartment in the battery. During recharging, the zinc oxide flows back through the air electrode, where it releases the oxygen, forming zinc again.

In the company’s planned vehicle battery, the amount of zinc slurry can be much greater than the amount of material in the air electrode, increasing energy density. Indeed, the system would be like a fuel-cell system or a conventional engine, in that the zinc slurry would essentially act as a fuel–pumping through the air electrode like the hydrogen in a fuel cell or the gasoline in a combustion engine. McDougall says the batteries could also last longer–from 2,000 to 10,000 cycles. And, if one part fails–such as the air electrode–it could be replaced, eliminating the need to buy a whole new battery.

As with fuel cells, this system may need to be paired with another type of battery for bursts of acceleration or to capture energy from processes such as braking. Also, Henriksen notes that other experimental zinc-air batteries have already achieved 200 cycles.

Commercial success of the more conventional flat design could depend on other factors, such as whether the new batteries deliver energy at higher rates than other experimental zinc-air batteries, as the company claims, and whether the goals for higher cycle numbers can be met. The new tube-based design is still years away from production.

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