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Power Science Technology

Australian Scientists Figure Out How Zinc-Air Batteries Can Replace Lithium-Ion Batteries (gizmodo.com.au) 118

Researchers at the University of Sydney has figured out how to solve one of the biggest problems standing in the way for zinc-air batteries to replace lithium-ion batteries. The reason zinc batteries are so sought after is because they're powered by zinc metal -- the 24th most abundant element in Earth's crust. Not only are they cheaper to produce than lithium-ion batteries, they can theoretically store five times more energy, are much safer and environmentally friendly. The problem with zinc batteries stems around them being difficult to charge because of the lack of electrocatalysts needed to reduce and generate oxygen during the discharging and charging of a battery. labnet shares a report from Gizmodo: "Up until now, rechargeable zinc-air batteries have been made with expensive precious metal catalysts, such as platinum and iridium oxide. In contrast, our method produces a family of new high-performance and low-cost catalysts." These new catalysts are produced through the simultaneous control of the composition, size and crystallinity of metal oxides of earth-abundant elements like iron, cobalt and nickel. They can then be applied to build rechargeable zinc-air batteries. Researcher Dr Li Wei, also from the University's Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, said trials of zinc-air batteries developed with the new catalysts had demonstrated "excellent rechargeability" -- including less than a 10 percent battery efficacy drop over 60 discharging/charging cycles of 120 hours. The research was published in the journal Advanced Materials.
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Australian Scientists Figure Out How Zinc-Air Batteries Can Replace Lithium-Ion Batteries

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Now how can we use it when we must destroy all Zinc?

  • Those tiny little hearing-aid batteries are EXPENSIVE. It doesn't matter if they're capable of storing more energy... If they are not affordable, nobody will buy them.

    Why aren't hearing-aid batteries li-ion?
  • by Spy Handler ( 822350 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @05:56PM (#55030087) Homepage Journal

    less than a 10 percent battery efficacy drop over 60 discharging/charging cycles of 120 hours

    How does this compare to current lithium batteries? I thought my phone's battery was better (I heard like 100 recharges without any significant drop)

    • by Nacht Elfje ( 4163483 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @06:04PM (#55030155)
      This is our monthly "revolutionary battery" news item. There's always something wrong. Too big, too heavy, too few charge cycles, too slow to charge, too expensive, etc. The batteries never actually get practically produced. The purpose of these news items is for the research group to get funding. Don't expect anything from this as a consumer.
      • This is our monthly "revolutionary battery" news item. There's always something wrong.

        Except in the case where it's right such as NiMH and LiPo...

      • This is our monthly "revolutionary battery" news item. There's always something wrong. Too big, too heavy, too few charge cycles, too slow to charge, too expensive, etc.

        If we could only have less news about technology in it's early stages We must eliminate the media telling us anything until the technology is well and truly proven with a track record.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Ah yes, the Evil Scientist Conglomerate, hell bent on world domination with diabolically crafted hoaxes like global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, honeybee population decline and moon landings, among other things, in order to suck up always more grant money from the world's helpless and totally not evil governements and corporations.

      • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @09:34PM (#55031467)

        Aside from the "never actually get practically produced" bit, you've just described the media around every battery ever created since the dawn of electricity.

        I most certainly do expect something from it. I do often with promising research. If you want to feel silly start looking at Slashdot articles talking about revolutionary batteries like LiFePo4 from 15+ years ago, and then laugh at all the posts like yours claiming we'll never see them and it's just researchers wanting more funding.

        Because you know the best way of not getting something? Don't fund it.

      • Baby steps. Someone has to push the envelope even if the results are far from perfect. This is the only was to get a true "revolutionary battery" for consumers in our lifetime. Point in case. Lithium batteries where invented in the late 70s, but it was only relatively recently that we figured out how to mass produced them cheaply enough for consumer products. So the current state of the art battery technology is actually older then most people in here.
      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday August 17, 2017 @05:26AM (#55032803) Homepage

        Not really. A while back, the big story on Slashdot, the story was silicon anodes. Guess what? Tesla uses them in at least some, if not all, of their battery packs.

        The announcement generates hype. The commercialization does not. Most announcements ultimately don't pan out, but those that do change the world - but those changes quickly become our "new normal" and we forget about what a big deal they were. Look at old cell phones and the size of the batteries it took versus the more humble power demands they were facing. And be thankful that the pace of technology advances marches on.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @06:05PM (#55030159)

      Well, yeah, but I assume that with 5 times the capacity you'll have to charge 5 times less often.

      Though in reality, phones will likely end up with a battery 5 times smaller. But the phone will be 1mm thinner..

      • A charge/discharge cycle of 120 hours is pretty slow.
        Let's say you need a 120kWh battery for your car to go 500 miles.
        To cover 500 miles in 60 hours, you need to be going around 8MPH. Not very quick for a car. That's assuming you can also keep the peak current draw under C/60, or 2kW. You could probably move a car at 8MPH with a 2Kw motor.... Not very useful for a car.

        The point here is batteries tend to wear out quicker as you put in to take out more current.
        I would be impressed if they did 60 charge/discha

        • I would be impressed if they did 60 charge/discharge cycles in 120 hours, not 120 hours per cycle.

          Be impressed. From TFA:

          The rechargeability of the battery was tested for 60 discharging/charging cycles (1 h each step) at 10 mA cm-2 continuously.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      They just demonstrated their method in the lab for the first time, what does it matter how it compares to something that is already refined and on the market for ages? What matters is the potential!

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo&world3,net> on Thursday August 17, 2017 @03:09AM (#55032511) Homepage Journal

      The cells Panasonic makes for Tesla cars are rated for 3000 cycles. Standard lifetime for batteries is the point at which they retain less than 80% of their original capacity.

      Phone batteries tend to be closer to 500 cycles, which is why they are usually noticeably degraded after a couple of years, or even 18 months for heavy users.

      However, the other factor to consider is how easy it is to manufacture, repair and replace a given type of battery. If you can restore lost capacity just by adding water, say, it's not such an issue if it only lasts 50 cycles.

    • by Hodr ( 219920 )

      Keep in mind the phrasing. It didn't say 60 charge/discharge cycles of the battery, it sais 60 120 hour charge/discharge cycles. How many times did they charge/discharge the cells in 120 hours? Even the slowest of slow charging batteries I have seen are 1/10C, so 20 hours for a full cycle. So maybe the minimum here is actually 1200 full battery cycles for 10 percent. Sounds good in that light.

      • From the article:

        The rechargeability of the battery was tested for 60 discharging/charging cycles (1 h each step) at 10 mA cm-2 continuously.

        So they did do 60 charge/discharge cycles. Each half of the cycle was 1 hour (ie 1C) for a total test time of 120 hours.

        Sam

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      That comparison is completely meaningless. This is a research prototype that serves to show the new catalyst is viable, nothing else. Nobody with a clue will compare this to an industrial product.

  • for everything from phones to hearing aids, sounds interesting. does this scale up? is elon musk going to fly over to the land done under and take a look? will gray chinese types hack into the educator's computer systems to learn what they could just read over at the journal advanced materials? but i have a serious question, "did these educators use Linux?"
    • will gray chinese types hack into the educator's computer systems to learn what they could just read over at the journal advanced materials?

      Probably already done, and the factories are already being tooled up. Most of the Universities in Sydney are filled with Chinese students anyway, no hacks are not required...

    • will gray chinese types hack into the educator's computer

      The educator/inventor you're talking may be Chinese himself, you know. He's listed as "Member of China Studies Centre", collaborates with Chinese universities, and has a Chinese name... though it looks like he studied in Singapore so maybe he's just ethnically Chinese. But who cares? Patents slow progress, I hope various countries steal and develop the tech.

      • guys, are you seeing the irony here? china has burned hundreds of millions of dollars on cornering the worlds lithium market. then some chinese guy goes to australia and you know he was offered a can of fosters by a clone of Barry McKenzie. then what comes out of this guys mouth is, "i think we can build a better battery using stuff we can pick up off the ground, lets tell everybody, CHEERS!"
  • If they lose 10% in 60 cycles, they would be near useless after 500 cycles. Lithium Ion batteries are at least twice as long lived. I have cell phone batteries that still are above 90% after two years.

    • If they lose 10% in 60 cycles

      Careful there, because not all cycles are created equal. It's indicated that they got 120 hours in a single cycle. So if we assume that we lose 10% for every 60 cycles, that's still sum(60*120*(1-n*10%),n = 0 -> 9). That's 39600 hours.or 4.5 years of usage. However, for a multiple number of reasons, I doubt this will see light anytime soon in a phone. There's a lot of lingering questions as to if it scales and what kind of self discharge these things are look at to name a few.

      • that's still sum(60*120*(1-n*10%),n = 0 -> 9). That's 39600 hours.or 4.5 years of usage.

        You're off by a factor of 60. Sixty cycles over 120 hours total, not 60 cycles at 120 hours each. That makes it 27 days.

    • If they lose 10% in 60 cycles, they would be near useless after 500 cycles. Lithium Ion batteries are at least twice as long lived. I have cell phone batteries that still are above 90% after two years.

      Is this a problem?
      Remember when a phone lasted a week on battery, then the iPhone came out and lasted a day and everyone said that was rubbish? People adapted because the benefits outweighed the issues.
      If you give me a battery with 5 times capacity but only lasts 1/4 as long I think I can live with that. Especially when the used product is more recyclable and it is less toxic to produce.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Now take the first Li-Ion prototype where the current catalysts were demonstrated and compare that. Then you get something approaching a fair comparison.

  • by viperidaenz ( 2515578 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @06:53PM (#55030487)

    It's right next to Lithium, which is the 25th.

    The abundance of the active material in a battery has almost nothing to do with the cost of production.

    It's all the other shit that goes into it, along with the production process.

    • It's right next to Lithium, which is the 25th.

      That isn't really enough information to make a call. The 24th most abundant could be 1.01x more abundant , or it could be 1000x more abundant than the 25th.
      Effort to extract, and environmental impact are probably more important metrics.

    • by sl3xd ( 111641 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @07:51PM (#55030835) Journal

      For which Zinc has a good thing going: it's so cheap we use it for everything, and so easy to refine and reuse its been used since antiquity.
      .
      Zinc costs $0.20 for 100g; at a similar purity, 100g of lithium is nearly $10

      Being ~50x less expensive, and being much easier to use are pretty big wins for Zinc.

      Zinc batteries are nothing new - it's in the same alkaline batteries we've been abusing for generations.

      So 2x the power density and 50x cheaper? That can be historic.

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        "Zinc batteries are nothing new - it's in the same alkaline batteries we've been abusing for generations."

        And the reason we keep using them for disposable batteries instead of rechargeable ones is that zinc historically sucks at being recharged.

        • by sl3xd ( 111641 )

          And if we can make even semi-decent rechargible zinc cells, it's a major win.

          At the end of the day, every battery needs to be replaced; lithium isn't a magic bullet.

          I'm not sure I care if I have to replace five zinc batteries after a hundred cycles each, or one lithium battery that lasts 500.

          If it costs less overall, and you get twice the energy density, why not use zinc?

          • by Khyber ( 864651 )

            "And if we can make even semi-decent rechargible zinc cells, it's a major win."

            We made them, and they were a major loss, with horrid energy density (although the 1.6 nominal cell voltage was nice to have, they couldn't match the Amp-hours of Ni-MH) and only lasted about 40 charge cycles before going to utter shit and not accepting a charge any longer. They are called PowerGenix batteries.

            • by sl3xd ( 111641 )

              There were also the Rayovac "renewal" batteries. Rayovac even hired Michael Jordan as the spokesman. (I wonder how much he was paid to do those ads...) I even have a charger for he "renewal" batteries. I keep it around because it charges NiMH and NiCd cells.

              I wouldn't call those renewable alkalines semi-decent.

              It doesn't sound like you hold them in high regard either.

              But if the Aussies have figured out a major improvement... that could change things.

              • by Khyber ( 864651 )

                They probably moved to a solid composition instead of a semi-liquid composition to avoid whiskering, but that won't solve it entirely.

      • Zinc loves sacrificing itself that way. It's hard to undo it.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Careful, lithium-ion batteries aren't made using metallic lithium as a feedstock. You need to compare lithium carbonate or nitrate, and weigh the lithium fraction thereof. Refining costs to metal shouldn't factor in, because it's not refined to metal.

      • Zinc is also about 10X heavier than lithium on a per-atom basic. So on a per-atom basis, lithium is actually more abundant than zinc and only 5X as expensive.

  • The next step is figuring out how to make them work when held right-side-up like half the planet is going to do.

  • by Khyber ( 864651 ) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 16, 2017 @08:03PM (#55030913) Homepage Journal

    Looks like these guys didn't learn from PowerGenix and their nickel-zinc batteries.

    The problem with every fucking zinc battery is that it WHISKERS LIKE MAD when you discharge/recharge it.

    Stop the micro/nano-structures which form nilly-willy on the Zinc side of things after the battery has been manufactured and put into use, and you literally solve the charge degradation problem, charge cycle count problem, and the variable energy density problem all in one go.

    Now how do you stop the Zinc from whiskering?

    • I thought whiskers were the big problem with NiCad batteries, also? Battery conditioner equipment was supposed to reverse that, or maybe just arrest it for a time. A ham radio buddy used to take a 12 Volt power supply and zap the crap out of NiCad AA cells in order to de-whiskerize them, but I'm not sure how effective that was.

      Alas, I have no solution for your whisker problem.

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        Whiskering also happens with Ni-MH batteries as well. You can break the structures down with an applied voltage, at the cost of degrading the actual anode and cathode materials.I brought a dead (like 5 year old PKCELL) set of 4 Ni-MH AA back to life (tested originally at 0.2 volts each on a meter, they should've been fucked) with a hard slam of 24V @ 1.25A for a few seconds, and suddenly they took a charge again, and held that charge, but heavily reduced capacity.

        The cross-section of those cells was QUITE

    • by Anonymous Coward

      easy. let zinc transition from being a boy element to a girl element. girls dont have whiskers!!!!!! also, the batteries wont become waste, cause GIRLS DONT POOP!!!

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday August 17, 2017 @05:33AM (#55032815) Homepage

      Solid electrolytes are a big promising tech in this front, where you have an ion-conductive glass that functions both as electrolyte and separator membrane. The separator is harder than the dendrites and so there's little damage during charge / discharge.

      I'm sure dendrites will be overcome eventually. And that will help a lot of different techs, not just zinc (lithium metal is also bad with dendrites).

  • including less than a 10 percent battery efficacy drop over 60 discharging/charging cycles of 120 hours.

    10% drop over 60 charges?

    That's not good.

    • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

      10% drop over 60 charges? That's not good.

      Certainly it would be better if it degraded less, and I hope they can improve things, but it's not necessarily a showstopper as it is, either.

      Consider that in many use cases, a battery is almost never fully cycled. For example, my cell phone rarely gets below 30% charged, simply because I plug it in every night. If the 10%/60 figure is for full discharge/recharge cycles, then the battery's real-world longevity might be significantly better than that. (and that's not even counting the fact that charge in

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      That's not good.

      That is a first research prototype demonstrating the catalyst works. Are you people all unable to understand what is described here?

  • ...earth-abundant elements like iron, cobalt and nickel.

    Damn, I was hoping we could shut down those dodgy cobalt mines that exploit child labour.

    • Anything with significant amounts of cobalt in it doesn't sound that environmentally friendly
      • It's supposed to be part of the catalyst. Unless they are misusing the term the amounts used should be quite small. A small amount of platinum matters, cobalt not so much.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Most people's impression when they hear cobalt is off because they think of cobalt 60, a radioisotope. But while it has some toxicity, it's not actually that toxic among metals, particularly when not in the form of soluble salts. Cobalt is even used as a major alloying agent in orthopedic and dental implants; it's not allergenic like nickel. As for the broader envirnonment, cobalt deficiency is much more common in soils than excess. Cobalt-deficient soils lead to a shortage of B12 in animals that graze ther

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      You do realize that cobalt is found pretty much everywhere on Earth where nickel and copper are mined, don't you? It's historically been recovered most from the DRC because they have the richest deposits, but with prices rising from increased demand, it becomes justifiable to work recovery into the tailings streams of the majority of nickel and copper mines the world over.

  • No they won't. Christ, how stupid do you think we are?

  • I must have read a dozen articles over the past 5 years talking about folks have developed a new battery tech that's "game changing" better than current tech. News outlets love showcasing headlines but never followup on why these things don't pan out.
    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      The "game changer" parts are added by stupid journalists. What is really going on is that research goes into better rechargeables and there is progress.

  • "The problem with zinc batteries stems around them being difficult to charge because of the lack of electrocatalysts needed to reduce and generate oxygen during the discharging and charging of a battery."

    That is not the problem. The problem with *every* rechargable battery that has "air" in the name is that air contains all sorts of nasty things the gum up the works after some time. Every xxx-air battery suffers from this, zinc-air, lithium-air, aluminum-air, etc.

    The solution is some sort of filter that rem

  • A battery breakthrough announced in this forum almost guarantees that said breakthrough will fizzle and will become completely forgotten within a few months.

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