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Published on October 23rd, 2009 | by Chris Milton

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Electric Car Revolution? Zinc Batteries Powered By Sun And Air

October 23rd, 2009 by  
 

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The Salamander of myth and legend: a creature which lives in water but renews its life in fire. It’s rubbish, Bunkum, steaming horse manure…  a bit like an electric car with neither plug nor solar panels.

Except no one’s told those clever boffins over at Advanced Power and Energy Sources Transportation (APET) in Hong Kong. According to them, the Salamander and the cordless EV are about to step out of myth and into reality.

APET’s revolution centres upon how zinc air batteries can power EVs. The technology is proven on the small scale: hearing aid battery adverts dominate any Google search for “zinc air battery”.

Furthermore, as zinc air batteries need only zinc, air and water to produce electricity they are likely the most environmentally friendly ones around.

However, upscaling the technology from a hearing aid to a car has always been a problem.

Until now.

There are four traditional problems with zinc air batteries. APET’s Zinc Oxygen Energy (ZOE) system appears to have cracked them all:

Weight – The usual materials needed to create a zinc-air battery have always been heavy. APET have totally rethought the battery’s design, resulting in a battery which has twice as much Wh/kg (watt hours/kilogram) than a lithium-polymer (Li-Po) solution and four times as much as a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) one.

Cost – The traditional materials have also always been expensive, affordable only by the military. The same redesign has yielded a phenomenal reduction in price, with the production costs of a ZOE battery now estimated at one-tenth of a Li-Po solution and one-fifth of a NiMH one.

Reusable – Zinc air batteries have always had one problem: once the zinc inside has been exhausted, they’re dead and cannot be recharged. Most current zinc air solutions are made to be disposable (albeit biodegradable as well). The ZOE battery is designed to allow the casing to be taken apart and reused with a fresh batch of zinc.

Rechargable – Hang on, didn’t I just say that zinc air batteries cannot be recharged? Well they can’t, not in the traditional “plug it in” sense of the term. However, it’s an easy process to turn the waste zinc oxide back into zinc… all you need is heat (and lots of it). For this, APET have proposed building solar furnaces which will capture and concentrate enough of the sun’s heat to perform the chemical reaction.


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About the Author

is a seasoned sustainability journalist focusing on business, finance and clean technology. His writing's been carried by a number of highly respected publishers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Scientific American. You can follow him on twitter as @britesprite, where he's one of Mashable's top green tweeters and Fast Company's CSR thought leaders. Alternatively you can follow him to the shops... but that would be boring.



  • Boris

    “APET will build solar furnaces to generate the heat needed to recover the zinc. Not a single power station has to be built to keep these batteries going.”

    Just one hitch: the chemical potential energy represented by the unoxidized zinc, used to drive the motor… For example if a car needs ~30 KW to travel ~100 miles, then for every 100 miles of travel it will need at least ~30 KW of solar energy collected. Now add conversion/transport/repackaging inefficiencies (as no process is 100% efficient), and we’re probably talking the equivalent of ~100 KW of energy per 100 miles.

    In nice locales at optimal time of day (which only lasts for a couple of hours — and that assuming there are no clouds…) the Sun dumps ~1 KWh per square meter in total solar energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Even under such ideal conditions, to recharge a zinc “tank” with range of 400 miles, we’d need near-100% efficient collection of solar energy over an area of 400 square meters for the duration of an hour. In real life, let’s be charitable and say ~600 square meters for an hour per “tank”.

    Let’s say we need to fuel up 10,000,000 cars per day on an ongoing basis. This would require optimally-situated cloudless solar collecting area on the order of 1,000,000,000 square meters (assuming we get near-optimal collection for the equivalent of 6 hours per day.) But in real life we aren’t going to have perfect operating conditions consistently, so you’ll need to spread this out geographically (losing spatial packing efficiency) and provide 300% redundancy on top of that, so take this up to ~4,000 square kilometers worth of solar collecting area. That’s not counting all the related infrastructure and the material/energy costs required to maintain these solar collection/zinc refinery operations.

    Which is to say, it’s not altogether impossible. But, such a “Revolution” would be one of the most extensive, and one of the most expensive, in human history…

  • Boris

    “APET will build solar furnaces to generate the heat needed to recover the zinc. Not a single power station has to be built to keep these batteries going.”

    Just one hitch: the chemical potential energy represented by the unoxidized zinc, used to drive the motor… For example if a car needs ~30 KW to travel ~100 miles, then for every 100 miles of travel it will need at least ~30 KW of solar energy collected. Now add conversion/transport/repackaging inefficiencies (as no process is 100% efficient), and we’re probably talking the equivalent of ~100 KW of energy per 100 miles.

    In nice locales at optimal time of day (which only lasts for a couple of hours — and that assuming there are no clouds…) the Sun dumps ~1 KWh per square meter in total solar energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Even under such ideal conditions, to recharge a zinc “tank” with range of 400 miles, we’d need near-100% efficient collection of solar energy over an area of 400 square meters for the duration of an hour. In real life, let’s be charitable and say ~600 square meters for an hour per “tank”.

    Let’s say we need to fuel up 10,000,000 cars per day on an ongoing basis. This would require optimally-situated cloudless solar collecting area on the order of 1,000,000,000 square meters (assuming we get near-optimal collection for the equivalent of 6 hours per day.) But in real life we aren’t going to have perfect operating conditions consistently, so you’ll need to spread this out geographically (losing spatial packing efficiency) and provide 300% redundancy on top of that, so take this up to ~4,000 square kilometers worth of solar collecting area. That’s not counting all the related infrastructure and the material/energy costs required to maintain these solar collection/zinc refinery operations.

    Which is to say, it’s not altogether impossible. But, such a “Revolution” would be one of the most extensive, and one of the most expensive, in human history…

  • Norm

    Sounds like a free lunch. We all know about them, don’t we ?

  • Norm

    Sounds like a free lunch. We all know about them, don’t we ?

  • It’s amazing to me how critics are the first to point out how a fledgling idea doesn’t scale to the masses. What they fail to recognize in their calculations is that nothing happens instantly. During the time it takes to develop and refine an idea and bring it to the masses, the other kinks tend to get worked out along the way. In the mean time, we can be doing our part to pave the way for innovations, rather than standing in the way, saying “it can’t be done.”

    I think it’s great that someone is taking the initiative to try the simple approach to a technological problem. If there is anything to it, the problems will be worked out eventually and reality will settle in. If not, then it will settle into the background and fade away. I’ve personally looked at the Zinc-Air idea for EVs but couldn’t figure out how to make scale to the automobile. If these guys really did, kudos to them!

    In the mean time, let’s work on getting the infrastructure ready to support the wave of the future!

  • It’s amazing to me how critics are the first to point out how a fledgling idea doesn’t scale to the masses. What they fail to recognize in their calculations is that nothing happens instantly. During the time it takes to develop and refine an idea and bring it to the masses, the other kinks tend to get worked out along the way. In the mean time, we can be doing our part to pave the way for innovations, rather than standing in the way, saying “it can’t be done.”

    I think it’s great that someone is taking the initiative to try the simple approach to a technological problem. If there is anything to it, the problems will be worked out eventually and reality will settle in. If not, then it will settle into the background and fade away. I’ve personally looked at the Zinc-Air idea for EVs but couldn’t figure out how to make scale to the automobile. If these guys really did, kudos to them!

    In the mean time, let’s work on getting the infrastructure ready to support the wave of the future!

  • MichaelBryant

    zinc fuel cells what is sound to me. Go to a station to refuel. just change out the exhausted cartage for new one. solar furnace may be more efficient than try to convert solar energy by a heat engine to turn over a generator at least in terms of transportation.

  • MichaelBryant

    zinc fuel cells what is sound to me. Go to a station to refuel. just change out the exhausted cartage for new one. solar furnace may be more efficient than try to convert solar energy by a heat engine to turn over a generator at least in terms of transportation.

  • Hi Boris — I understand your reasoning. There has been alot of research in the area of Zinc recovery through carbothermic reaction. I suggest you check out any of the studies available online. This one, for example, concluded a 30MW solar furnace could produce 10 tons zinc/hour from zinc oxide: http://solar.web.psi.ch/data/research/elprod

    It’s probably also worth noting that APET are looking at a whole variety of applications for ZOE technology, including backup batteries and electricity for off-grid habitation.

  • Hi Boris — I understand your reasoning. There has been alot of research in the area of Zinc recovery through carbothermic reaction. I suggest you check out any of the studies available online. This one, for example, concluded a 30MW solar furnace could produce 10 tons zinc/hour from zinc oxide: http://solar.web.psi.ch/data/research/elprod

    It’s probably also worth noting that APET are looking at a whole variety of applications for ZOE technology, including backup batteries and electricity for off-grid habitation.

  • jeffhre

    Boris, good point. Even without the huge solar infrastructure requirements it would sound just too fantastic to be true. Here however, is a solar copncept that can scale to meet these needs, using previously planned resource expenditures ( The maintenance and replacement needs of existing roadways). http://www.solarroadways.com/

    This sounds, if true, like an investment in extending the capabilities of existing technlogy. We all know how this can push out production possibilities boundaries into new frontiers, don’t we.

    Hopefully innovations like thes will pan out and we will be here to say, ladies and gentlemen, let the revolution begin.

  • jeffhre

    Boris, good point. Even without the huge solar infrastructure requirements it would sound just too fantastic to be true. Here however, is a solar copncept that can scale to meet these needs, using previously planned resource expenditures ( The maintenance and replacement needs of existing roadways). http://www.solarroadways.com/

    This sounds, if true, like an investment in extending the capabilities of existing technlogy. We all know how this can push out production possibilities boundaries into new frontiers, don’t we.

    Hopefully innovations like thes will pan out and we will be here to say, ladies and gentlemen, let the revolution begin.

  • cane

    hi Boris – the carbothermic is the exact approach APET adopt. At the same time, the circle of APET’s solution is well thoughted. With their solutions, if it realize that means its much closer to ship processed Zinc from solar rich desert of Nevada than Mideast. Further more, thru their cycle; its high purity of zincoxide been processed, instead of high impurity zinc that dig from the earth. Since Zinc will not be destroyed, It will be a sustained energy circle.

    Well done guys, stick with it… hope we can breath as we drive…

  • cane

    hi Boris – the carbothermic is the exact approach APET adopt. At the same time, the circle of APET’s solution is well thoughted. With their solutions, if it realize that means its much closer to ship processed Zinc from solar rich desert of Nevada than Mideast. Further more, thru their cycle; its high purity of zincoxide been processed, instead of high impurity zinc that dig from the earth. Since Zinc will not be destroyed, It will be a sustained energy circle.

    Well done guys, stick with it… hope we can breath as we drive…

  • Nice post I think these kind of innovation and steps definitely help us to fight against the global warming. I thing water fuel powered car is also a great example in this category.

  • Nice post I think these kind of innovation and steps definitely help us to fight against the global warming. I thing water fuel powered car is also a great example in this category.

  • Mike Woolley

    Hi, great article – very interested in contacting APET as we have been looking at ZAFC’s – we don’t have enough sunshine in UK for solar furnaces (would we did!) however, may have to go down original route of Dr. Cooper and LLNL and look at electrolysis to recover Zn. Haven’t been able to find an address for APET so far, would appreciate any help you could give me.

    Regards,

    Mike Woolley

  • Mike Woolley

    Hi, great article – very interested in contacting APET as we have been looking at ZAFC’s – we don’t have enough sunshine in UK for solar furnaces (would we did!) however, may have to go down original route of Dr. Cooper and LLNL and look at electrolysis to recover Zn. Haven’t been able to find an address for APET so far, would appreciate any help you could give me.

    Regards,

    Mike Woolley

  • Wouldn’t it be possible to replenish zinc oxide to zinc, carbothermically, by using charcoal only? Our country has a lot of wood, little sun.

  • Wouldn’t it be possible to replenish zinc oxide to zinc, carbothermically, by using charcoal only? Our country has a lot of wood, little sun.

  • Thank you for all the comments everyone. Anyone wanting more info should start at the Salamander home page: http://www.salamanderian.com

    Marti: I know the unfortunate limitations of solar furnaces (like Mike I live in the UK) however I’m not sure burning wood or charcoal on the scale needed would be environmentally friendly.

    There is some great research going on on highly efficient solar furnaces so … touch wood 🙂

  • Thank you for all the comments everyone. Anyone wanting more info should start at the Salamander home page: http://www.salamanderian.com

    Marti: I know the unfortunate limitations of solar furnaces (like Mike I live in the UK) however I’m not sure burning wood or charcoal on the scale needed would be environmentally friendly.

    There is some great research going on on highly efficient solar furnaces so … touch wood 🙂

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