Zinc Chemistry Challenges Lithium-Ion in 2021

February 9, 2021

As we put 2020 in the rear-view mirror, most of us are anxious for a return to something resembling “normal” in 2021. But one area that is rapidly changing (and never going back) is energy storage.

Zinc chemistry will be one of the factors driving change this year.

An increasing number of industries are transforming due to rapidly improving battery technologies: from utility-scale energy storage at the large scale to ultra-small wearable goods at the small end. Lithium-ion technology has become the 800-lb gorilla in energy storage, displacing lead-acid batteries in some markets while creating entirely new markets.

In 2021, we’re going to see the most substantial challenge yet to lithium-ion energy storage by batteries based on zinc chemistries. Zinc has always had certain advantages over lithium: higher power density, greater reliability, safer operation and superior sustainability. Various configurations of zinc batteries are available with some noticeable advantages over lithium-ion batteries.

Safety and reliability suit lighter wearables

On the one hand, manufacturers can use safe and reliable Zinc chemistry to make batteries smaller than equivalent lithium-ion devices for many consumer markets. For example, zinc-air batteries deliver light weight and very small size by using oxygen in the air as a reactant, instead of a liquid or solid-state reactant. This explains their wide use for powering hearing aids. Now rechargeable zinc-silver batteries are replacing lithium-ion devices in new generations of consumer devices, wearables, and other products because of size and safety advantages.[1]

When power density is more important than energy density

On the other hand, high power density makes zinc battery technology a strong competitor in certain industrial applications. In this case it’s important to understand the differences between an “energy” battery and a “power” battery. An energy battery is engineered to provide power for a long period of time, at a lower rate of discharge. For example, lithium-ion batteries are the usual choice for electric vehicles (EVs), because providing energy over hundreds of miles of use is a critical requirement!

The other category—the power battery—can discharge at a very high rate for a relatively shorter period of time. High power density within a battery suits many industrial applications that need to quickly tap a power source for a short period of time. Zinc technologies are well suited to power batteries, able to sustain high-rate charge/discharge cycles safely and reliably.

Nickel-zinc moves into data centers

To illustrate, one large and growing industry segment with an urgent need for power on demand is the data center market. The need for backup power to keep important services online is accelerating as hyperscale data centers proliferate, and more technologies such as IoT and 5G drive the need for edge computing to reduce the response latency of their services. These trends are making data center architectures more distributed, so continuous uptime at every facility is critical for service performance and reliability.

In 2021, nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries will gain momentum in data center markets, driven in large part by superior power density, safety, reliability and sustainability. NiZn batteries are smaller and lighter than the typical lead-acid batteries, so they can meet the power requirements of hyperscale data centers as well as the space constraints of the edge data centers.

NiZn chemistry is a “power battery” technology well suited to keeping data centers operating during a power outage. Unlike lithium-ion batteries (and lead-acid batteries, for that matter), NiZn batteries keep operating even when one or more cells in a battery string becomes weak or depleted. This attribute significantly increases reliability for mission critical applications.

Safety and sustainability for many markets

NiZn chemistry also makes data centers (and other applications) safer and more sustainable. In particular, ZincFive’s NiZn batteries are tested at the cell level to UL 9540A, a test method for evaluating thermal runaway fire propagation, and have not exhibited thermal runaway in any of the tests. This fundamentally safe battery chemistry reduces battery system costs and enables lower costs of construction, installation and operating expense due to reduced safety precautions.

Finally, a recent Climate Impact Report gave NiZn batteries the best climate impact score for any backup battery technology—9.4 out of 10. As sustainability becomes a top priority across major corporations, NiZn looks better and better.

In 2021 and the years beyond, these advantages position NiZn technology for not just for data centers, but also for aviation, EV charging, renewable energy storage and other markets.

Move over, lithium, zinc battery technology is the new “power player.”


[1] https://www.zpowerbattery.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/ZPower-FAQ-Electronic-Design.pdf

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