By Ivan Penn
Lithium-ion batteries have become essential for powering electric cars and storing energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines. But their drawbacks are also by now familiar: They use scarce minerals, are vulnerable to fires and explosions, and are pricey. A plentiful, safe and more affordable alternative would be worth a lot.
On Wednesday, an energy company headed by California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong announced it had developed a rechargeable battery operating on zinc and air that can store power far less than the cost of lithium-ion batteries. Tests of the zinc energy-storage systems have helped power villages in Africa and Asia as well as cellphone towers in the United States for the last six years, without any backup from utilities or the electric grid, Soon-Shiong said.
“It could change and create completely new economies using purely the power of the sun, wind and air,” Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and a biotechnology entrepreneur, said in an interview in Los Angeles before the announcement. Soon-Shiong and his company, NantEnergy, made the product announcement in conjunction with the One Planet Summit in New York, an event meant to further the goals of the Paris climate accords. He developed the technology with support from the World Bank.
The battery units, in conjunction with solar arrays, can be combined to create a microgrid system powering a village or a larger area, Soon-Shiong said. They have been deployed to support 110 villages in nine countries in Asia and Africa — including places that otherwise relied on generators or even lacked electricity, he said. The International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank fostering private-sector projects in developing countries, was an early investor in NantEnergy, and an agency representative sits on the company’s board. The US Department of Energy made development grants to NantEnergy (formerly known as Fluidic Energy) totaling $5 million, Soon-Shiong said.
NantEnergy, based in Phoenix and in El Segundo, California, says it expects to expand the use of its product in telecommunications towers and eventually extend it to home energy storage, beginning in California and New York. Beyond that, it anticipates use in electric cars, buses, trains and scooters. Soon-Shiong, who recently acquired The Los Angeles Times and is a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, made a fortune from the development of drugs to fight diabetes and breast cancer and the sale of pharmaceutical companies he had created.
His energy company says it is the first to commercialize the use of zinc air batteries and has more than 100 related patents. It is taking orders for delivery next year and sees the potential for a $50 billion market. Soon-Shiong said the cost of his zinc air battery had dropped steadily since development began. NantEnergy says the technology costs less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, a figure that some in the energy industry have cited as low enough to transform the electric grid into a round-the-clock carbon-free system.
As part of the climate event Wednesday in New York, the World Bank announced a $1 billion program to promote deployment of battery storage in the developing world, a move that it said could unleash another $4 billion in investments. In addition to their deployment in Asia and Africa, NantEnergy’s batteries have been used to power communications towers, including in the United States, Latin America and Southeast Asia. They include a Duke Energy location in North Carolina that withstood the effects of Hurricane Florence recently and Hurricane Irma last year.
Sherif Abdelrazek, a senior engineer at Duke Energy, said that because the zinc air battery does not pose fire hazards as lithium-ion batteries can, it does not need external cooling systems to prevent overheating. The system’s success means the Duke tower no longer needs to be connected to the electric grid, he said. As a result, 13 acres of land in the Great Smoky Mountains that was used for power lines is being turned over to the National Park Service.
NantEnergy’s announcement that it had reached the $100-per-kilowatt-hour threshold made the device even more attractive, Abdelrazek said. The product design is simple: plastic components and shell casing, a circuit board and zinc oxide, all in a package the size of a briefcase. In charging the batteries, electricity from solar installations is stored by converting zinc oxide to zinc and oxygen. In the discharge process, the system produces energy by oxidizing the zinc with air. When it is time to charge, the process begins again.
The NantEnergy battery can provide power for up to 72 hours on a single charge, meaning it could have lasted throughout the period of cloud cover and stormy weather from Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas. Dan Reicher, an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, said successful development of a rechargeable zinc air battery could be a milestone in energy storage. He said the challenge had been to make such batteries reliable for continuous use. “That’s an attractive characteristic if it’s true,” he said.
But he cautioned that a battery’s cost per kilowatt-hour depended on the application and scale. And he said the company’s technology would have to live up to scrutiny. “People do make claims and offer what they feel like is a legitimate set of data,” he said. “I’m always elated to hear progress in storage, but you have to be careful.”