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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Can Zinc Batteries Compete With Lithium Ion Batteries?

  • Most common batteries that power our smartphones and electric cars are lithium-ion batteries.
  • Water-based zinc batteries offer a promising alternative to these lithium-ion batteries.
  • Zurich-based researchers think they can make zinc batteries cheaper, more efficient, durable, safe and environmentally friendly.
Battery

ETH Zurich researchers think zinc batteries can be made cheap, efficient, durable, safe and environmentally friendly. All attributes combined would be a breakthrough for the zinc metal battery chemistry effort.

The details about the study have been reported in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. Zinc batteries are considered promising alternatives to lithium-?ion batteries.

Image Credit: Visualisations: ETH Zurich / Xin Zou. Click the press release link to see a larger unedited image.

The world economy needs cheap and powerful batteries that can store produced electricity from wind or sunlight so that we can use it whenever we need it, even when it’s dark outside or there’s no wind blowing. Most common batteries that power our smartphones and electric cars are lithium-ion batteries. These are quite expensive because worldwide demand for lithium is soaring, and these batteries can also be highly flammable.

Water-based zinc batteries offer a promising alternative to these lithium-ion batteries. An international team of researchers led by ETH Zurich has now devised a strategy that brings key advances to the development of such zinc batteries, making them more powerful, safer and more environmentally friendly.

Durability is a challenge

 There is a number of advantages to zinc batteries: Zinc is abundant, cheap and has mature recycling infrastructure. Furthermore, zinc batteries can store a lot of electricity. Most importantly, zinc batteries don’t necessarily require the use of highly flammable organic solvents as the electrolyte fluid, as they can also be made using water-based electrolytes instead.

Related: The U.S. Needs To Double The Size Of Its Energy Grid

However, there are challenges that engineers must face with when developing these batteries: when zinc batteries are charged at high voltage, the water in electrolyte fluid reacts on one of the electrodes to form hydrogen gas. When this happens, the electrolyte fluid dwindles and battery performance decreases. Furthermore, this reaction causes excess pressure to build up in the battery that can be dangerous. Another issue is formation of spikey deposits of zinc during charging of the battery, known as dendrites, that can pierce through the battery and in the worst case even cause short circuit and render the battery unusable.

Salts make batteries toxic

In recent years, engineers have pursued the strategy of enriching the aqueous liquid electrolyte with salts in order to keep the water content as low as possible. But there are also disadvantages to this: It makes the electrolyte fluid viscous, which slows down the charging and discharging processes considerably. In addition, many of the salts used contain fluorine, making them toxic and harmful to the environment.

Maria Lukatskaya, Professor of Electrochemical Energy Systems at ETH Zurich, has now joined forces with colleagues from several research institutions in the United States and Switzerland to systematically search for the ideal salt concentration for water-based zinc-ion batteries. Using experiments supported by computer simulations, the researchers were able to reveal that the ideal salt concentration is not, as was previously assumed, the highest one possible, but a relatively low one: five to ten water molecules per salt’s positive ion.

Long-lasting performance and fast charging

The researchers also didn’t use any environmentally harmful salts for their improvements, opting instead for environmentally friendly salts of acetic acid, called acetates. “With an ideal concentration of acetates, we were able to minimize electrolyte depletion and prevent zinc dendrites just as well as other scientists previously did with high concentrations of toxic salts,” said Dario Gomez Vazquez, a doctoral student in Lukatskaya’s group and lead author of the study. “Moreover, with our approach, the batteries can be charged and discharged much faster.”

So far, the ETH researchers have tested their new battery strategy at a relatively small laboratory scale. The next step will be to scale up the approach and see if it can also be translated for large batteries. Ideally, these might one day be used as storage units in the power grid to compensate for fluctuations, or in the basements of single-family homes to allow solar power produced during the day to be used in the evening.

ETH Professor Lukatskaya noted there are still some challenges to overcome before zinc batteries will be ready for the market. She explained that batteries consist of two electrodes – the anode and the cathode – and the electrolyte fluid between them.

“We showed that by tuning electrolyte composition efficient charging of zinc anodes can be enabled,” Lukatskaya said. “Going forward, however, performance cathode materials will have to be optimized as well to realize durable and efficient zinc batteries.”

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***

There remains the scaling up experiments and cathode discovery. Over the course of that work the first test of the team’s effort will happen. Finding the suitable cathode material might require more adjustment to the electrolyte. But there is one question. How cold can this zinc technology stay working. Takes something to keep the water from freezing.

The prospects look good. So far no one is using lithium in for hearing aid batteries because the battery is so very very close indeed. But zinc batteries are common in hearing aids. That nicely illustrates the difference in safety.

Should a cathode be found that works well up to the size of say a “D Cell” running at 3 volts the market might have a new favorite go to battery. It would be way less expensive than lithium.

By Brian Westenhaus via Newenergyandfuel.com

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