Powering the Future: Nickel-Zinc Batteries Unlock Data Centers’ AI Potential 

October 23, 2023
ZincFive BC 2 UPS Battery Cabinets powered by nickel-zinc

At this point, most people have heard of AI’s breathtaking potential via ChatGPT, industrial applications, and more. But data centers are looking under the hood of these shiny new features and finding the lesser-known truth: AI’s power demands are equally breathtaking.   

As data centers face escalating power needs driven by AI and numerous other emerging technologies, rack densities continue to climb and force data center operators to rethink their battery backup strategies. Rather than relying on familiar but less powerful lead-acid batteries to back up increasingly vast applications and power, they’re turning to new chemistries that better balance resiliency, reliability, footprint, and sustainability under intensifying demands.  

At this year’s Data Center Dynamics (DCD) Towards Net Zero virtual discussion, ZincFive’s Director of Product Management, Aaron Schott, joined Harry Handlin, Data Center Segment Leader at ABB, and Dave Buckner, Director of Engineering at Sabey Data Centers, in a panel moderated by DCD’s CTO Steven Warren to discuss guidance on data center power innovations, emerging trends, battery options, and strategies to meet intensifying capacity needs sustainably.   

You can watch the full presentation for additional insights; meanwhile, we’ve summarized below the key takeaways from the discussion on optimizing data center power to meet future demand.  

What’s Happening Now: Surging Densities Strain Existing Strategies  

Many data centers are struggling to support the high-powered computing capabilities required by AI and machine learning applications. AI is driving demands for higher rack densities as data centers pack more compute power into servers. This additional need for power translates to the need for more powerful backup power systems, including uninterruptible power supply (UPS) equipment. 

“We’re seeing a need for more powerful UPS modules, up to 1.5 megawatts, to support these densified racks,” notes Harry Hamlin, the data center segment manager at ABB. “This strains data centers’ space and power limits.” 

Harry went on to note how some batteries used for UPS systems are unable to keep up with evolving demands. 

Lead-acid systems have a relatively low power density, so they become impractical at such large UPS capacities. While lithium-ion batteries have been the primary alternative until now, they have supply chain, safety, and regulation issues. Some jurisdictions prohibit lithium batteries entirely, and at ABB we anticipate lithium costs rising substantially in the future given the enormous demand from energy storage and transportation electrification.

Harry Handlin, Data Center Segment Manager at ABB

Harry shared that, at ABB, he’s been leading research into more sustainable, cost-effective battery solutions for the AI era.  

How to Optimize Backup Power with the Right Battery Chemistries  

The panel agreed that data centers can optimize resiliency and sustainability by selecting targeted battery solutions for their ideal use cases. In particular, Harry said that nickel-zinc batteries offer distinct advantages for space-pressed data centers running intensive workloads. Their unmatched power density provides the same runtime capacity in significantly less space than lead-acid or lithium-ion options, freeing up precious data center real estate.  

Nickel-zinc is a great product because of its circularity, cost, and sustainability benefits. Most of our customers see nickel-zinc as a no-brainer when evaluating total cost of ownership and return on investment.  

Having the rack assembled with nickel zinc, instead of assembling on site as with other technologies, saves significantly on labor. They can also operate at higher temperatures than other batteries – up to 35°C / 95°F – which helps reduce cooling costs and related emissions. 

We’re adopting nickel-zinc technology in our facilities. It offers at least twice the life of traditional lead-acid batteries. Getting ZincFive systems energized faster through prefab shipping and installation puts us into commissioning sooner. We’ve seen major cost savings from shipping, labor, and accelerated delivery.”  

Dave Buckner, Director of Engineering at Sabey Data Centers.

Nickel-zinc batteries’ smaller size also further reduces their space claim, allowing more room for revenue-driving servers. They eliminate safety hazards posed by lead-acid and lithium-ion alternatives: they’re incapable of thermal runaway and contain no toxic materials such as lead, lithium, or cobalt.   

Better for the Planet    

As data center customers pursue ambitious ESG goals, sustainability has become a priority for them – and nickel-zinc batteries deliver.  

Over the last few years, sustainability has become a much bigger part of my conversations with data center customers. We’ve seen increased interest from them in understanding scope 2 and scope 3 emissions, including from battery manufacturers like us. 

Aaron Schott, Director of Product Management at ZincFive

Manufacturers need to consider batteries’ full sustainability picture – from materials to shipping to recyclability. Optimizing these factors for essential data center power infrastructure will be crucial moving forward. Nickel-zinc batteries’ lifecycle climate impact is significantly smaller than lead-acid and lithium batteries’ impact, making them an ideal solution for data centers looking to attract climate-concious clients.  

“Nickel zinc is a great product for sustainability, using common metals like nickel and zinc that have great circularity and recyclability,” noted Harry. “It complements the sustainability story of data centers very well.” 

“I visited ZincFive’s factory,” shared Dave, “They have a good sustainability story, as well as a good recycling story with those batteries… it contributes in many ways to sustainability.”   

The Future of Data Center Backup Power  

While lead-acid batteries sufficed for data center power demands in the past, the new AI era calls for solutions beyond just adding more – it’s neither space nor cost-efficient at today’s scales.  

“Nickel-zinc technology has been around for over a hundred years – it’s just more readily available now because recent innovations made it economically viable,” concluded Harry. “It’s a well known, thoroughly tested technology embraced by many customers with great success.” 

Nickel-zinc batteries’ unparalleled power density optimizes data center resiliency, delivering ample backup capacity at a fraction of the footprint. Their straightforward integration and operation ensure power continuity without introducing new hazards or expenses. And their sustainable qualities align with data centers’ growing environmental commitments.  

For data centers pursuing reliable, efficient backup power at scale, the future is nickel-zinc. That’s The Power of Good Chemistry!