Meet zinc, the cheap metal gunning for lithium’s battery crown

A metal best known for galvanizing steel is making the jump into a developing $30 billion energy-storage market for electrical grids that’s increasingly seen as key to unleashing solar and wind power upon the world.

Less than four months after Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to produce 100% of New York’s electricity from clean sources by 2040, the state power authority launched an innovation challenge involving 60 companies in a quest to reach that goal. The winner: A Canada-based startup whose pitch can be wrapped up in two words: Think zinc.

Battery systems built around zinc, they said, don’t catch fire like lithium-ion systems. The longer they run, the less costly they are in comparison. And zinc is cheaper and more widely available. It’s a pitch drawing interest not just in New York, which in January initiated a $2.55 million project with the winning startup. Canada and Indonesia are funding their own zinc-battery projects.

“Storage for utilities is an untapped market,” said Ron MacDonald, the head of Zinc8 Energy Solutions, the company that won the state challenge. “It’s a holy grail.”

Lithium-ion batteries were first commercialized in 1991 and are used in applications ranging from electronics to vehicles. As utilities turned toward renewables to generate electricity, they were a natural choice to fill in when solar or wind was interrupted.

Meanwhile, zinc-based batteries, with their lower charge rates, were limited to tiny hearing aids until about two years ago. That’s when engineers first discovered how to make them rechargeable on a commercial scale. Since then, companies including Zinc8, NantEnergy Inc. and e-Zn Inc. have been targeting their use for utilities, where they can accrue energy over an entire day and utilize it at night.

”There’s no question lithium and lead-acid batteries currently dominate the energy storage market,” said Andrew Green, Executive Director at the International Zinc Association. “But we’re the upcoming group.”

In January, Zinc8 penned a three-year contract with the New York State Power Authority to develop a demonstration project that can produce back up power for a municipal building or a building on a college campus for eight hours, at a cost of around $250/kWh.

The Vancouver-based company is in the process of finding a right-sized site for the project, most likely in western New York, MacDonald said in an interview. Once that’s done, the system could be up and working by 2022, he said.

The power authority has set a goal to achieve 3 GW of energy-storage statewide by 2030 to support Cuomo’s Green New Deal. The company goal, according to MacDonald: “Go through testing in different scenarios where we can efficiently add our batteries” to different types of grids.

The New York project “opens the door for Zinc8 to deploy its technology into the broader utility market,” he said.

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