Zinc batteries could revolutionize electric cars

October 18, 2010 7:50:55 PM PDT
A technology born in the Bay Area could revolutionize electric cars. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories are experimenting with a common metal that shows great promise.

Researcher John Cooper is working on what he believes could be the future of transportation.

"It's a power source for refuel able electrical vehicles you can use 24/7 if you wish," Cooper said.

Cooper spent decades at the Lawrence Livermore lab developing a fuel cell battery that uses the common metal zinc to generate electricity.

"It's low cost, it's non-toxic and as a natural resource it's essentially inexhaustible, there's enough zinc around the world to convert most of the world's cars to electric driven," Cooper said.

Unlike the batteries in hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius, the zinc-air fuel cell is designed to be refilled like a gas tank.

When the pellets are placed in the cell, they trigger a chemical reaction. Electrons migrate from one side to the other creating a charge.

After a few weeks, the battery is drained and refilled and the zinc recycled.

"It's an environmentalists dream," Cooper said.

This month, a Montana company announced plans to take the zinc battery to the commercial market.

Zinc Air Vice President Craig Wilkins believes a system for low powered delivery vehicles could be developed in a few years.

"I think the intent is to put it into useable market as quickly as possible and scale the battery so we can use it in fleet vehicles, like the Postal Service," he said.

Wilkins says another strategy would pair the zinc fueled cell with the metal batteries used in today's electric cars. Those batteries are more powerful and provide better acceleration but take hours to recharge.

In a two battery system, the driver could fill up with zinc in about 10 minutes, allowing one battery to keep the other charged.

"I could have an existing electric car, but if I wanted to drive from SF to LA or across country the ability to use the fuel cell to extend range of that electric vehicle could come quickly," Wilkins said.

And if the vehicles do become reality, the battery's inventor expects the non-polluting zinc to cost about half as much as gasoline.

"That would propel car at about 4 cents per mile," Cooper said.

Several other batteries are also in development using materials like lithium. But Cooper says much of those materials are mined overseas and the U.S. has abundant supplies of zinc domestically.


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