ZPower looks to the future of battery technology

Just a few weeks ago, Senator John McCain called for a $300 million USD prize to whoever can develop a new type of battery to "leapfrog" the abilities of current generation of commercially available plug-in hybrid and electric cars. 

In this age of skyrocketing oil and gas prices, such a proposition certainly makes sounds attractive.  After all, even the major car manufacturers seem to be announcing or rolling out new hybrid cars or at least focusing on smaller, more fuel-efficient variants every other week.  In fact, some car makers will even offer solar panels as an option on certain models of vehicles – though its actual practicality is questionable.

Would such an approach work though?

Probably not, according to ZPower CEO Ross Dueber, whose company is currently developing a new battery technology for use with laptops that is slated to be available early next year.  The problem here is that such a monumental effort requires huge sums of money upfront -- not at the back end.  Dueber reckons that $300 million is only a fraction of what it’ll actually cost to develop a new generation of superior battery for vehicles.

Dueber should have a pretty good idea here. After all, ZPower itself is in the midst of creating a new page in battery technology with its work in consumer-ready silver-zinc batteries. One of the key advantages of the silver-zinc battery technology is that it is inherently safe from explosions or from catching fire due to the complete absence of the relatively volatile lithium.

Another attraction of silver-zinc batteries lies in its power density.  It has about 40 percent higher density than lithium-ion batteries, with plenty of potential to safely increase its energy density.  In fact, the projected improvement in energy density could hit two-times that of lithium-polymer eventually.

In addition, the key materials in a silver-zinc battery are also fully recyclable.  Unlike downcycled lithium-ion cells, which can no longer be reused, the recycling process for silver-zinc results in materials that are the same quality as those that went toward the initial creation of the battery. Assuming proper recycling, the need to mine for new raw materials will be reduced, certainly making it more environmentally friendly.

However, are silver-zinc batteries the Holy Grail in terms of battery safety? Dueber was candid on the relative risks.  He explained, “Keep in mind though that we safely drive around today with highly flammable gasoline in our tanks, so personally I'm not quite sure of the  relative risks when comparing lithium-ion batteries to gasoline.”

Still, there is no doubt that silver-zinc batteries do offer increased safety and a higher energy density.  Assuming production costs does not prove to be a barrier; it is hard to see vehicle manufacturers not wanting to switch over to silver-zinc at some point in the future.

When asked, Dr. Dueber confirmed that vehicle batteries are definitely in their product development roadmap, though he was coy when it came to the details.  All that I could get was “timing is undefined pending our success in consumer electronics.”

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