LLNL zinc air fuel cell technology licensed to Montana company

A Montana company has found a low-cost, environmentally safe solution to power electric vehicles for generations to come, thanks to a technology developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Kalispell, Mont.-based Zinc Air, Inc. (ZAI) announced today that it had obtained exclusive rights from LLNL for the zinc air fuel cell (U.S. Patent 5,434,020) invented by John Cooper, a retired LLNL chemist.

Nearly continuous use of fleet vehicles, such as buses, is possible with 10-minute refueling at 4 to 6 hour intervals, using the process illustrated here.

“At the moment, most in the auto industry are currently looking to lithium batteries as the power solution for electric cars, but those batteries are manufactured primarily outside of the United States and are not cost effective for widespread use,” said ZAI Co-Founder and President Dave Wilkins. “There is enough readily available zinc just in the United States to produce billions of these batteries,” he continued.

By contrast, lithium primarily is found outside the United States.

Worldwide resources of zinc total more than 1.8 gigatons – with more than 35 percent of that in the United States alone.

Global zinc production in 21 months would be sufficient to produce one billion 10 kWh zinc air batteries – by contrast it would take 180 years of lithium production to produce those same batteries. These figures were quoted in a recent white paper by Meridian International Research, which stated, “Lithium supply and future production will be far from adequate to sustain global electric vehicle production.”

According to Cooper, “In the short-term, this new technology has the potential to positively impact fleets of electric vehicles, such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, that combine high daily usage, low-power requirements, and an in-place service infrastructure.” There is an enormous market for lightweight, low-power, zero-emission delivery vehicles that can operate multiple shifts. Rapid refueling – as opposed to overnight recharging – makes multiple shifts a reality. With 10-minute refueling, this technology allows battery use up to 24 hours a day.

In the longer term, this technology and other zinc/air and zinc/metal battery technologies represent an opportunity for the United States to establish itself as the dominant global leader in battery technology and development.

“The contrast with lithium batteries in terms of environmental consequences must not be overlooked,” said Wilkins. “The byproduct – zinc oxide – is 100 percent recyclable.”

The technology enables safe, lower-cost, clean, quiet, reliable and environmentally friendly power generation. Zinc Air Fuel Cell (ZAFC) products combine atmospheric oxygen from the air we breathe with zinc metal pellets as the fuel to generate electricity.

In operation, the fuel cell consumes all of the zinc and is operationally quiet, providing instantaneous electrical energy with no greenhouse gas emissions. It also doesn’t contain any of the toxic elements found in lithium batteries or other battery chemistries.

“In truth, new technology often matures in fits and starts over decades,” observes Annemarie Meike, the business development executive who has stewarded the development of this and other clean tech at LLNL. “A previous licensee brought marketing and manufacturing expertise to our inventions. Some of that developmental understanding will seep into new incarnations of the zinc air fuel cell.”

Zinc Air technology is now seeing life because of the anticipated demand for efficient, low-cost alternatives to lithium for electric vehicle battery production. One of the many benefits of this technology is that it enables continuous fuel feed while the system is under load, making it ideal for electronic vehicle and fleet power supply.

This technology on a small scale also may provide portable power as a generator (1-3 kW) or can be scaled up to provide enough power to operate high-use fleet vehicles and buses.

ZAI is in discussions with multiple fleet vehicle manufacturers to develop products for their immediate needs. The company intends to begin development and testing in late 2010 with full-scale field testing in the second quarter of 2011.

ZAI is a privately held corporation headquartered in Kalispell, MT. It is focused on the development of sustainable energy storage solutions for transportation and smart grid applications intended to provide high levels of efficiency at low costs. ZAI is also committed to providing the “greenest” battery technology using zinc chemistry, which is abundant, inexpensive and environmentally friendly. In addition to the Zinc Air Fuel Cell, ZAI is in the process of developing a grid-scale storage technology to provide the next generation of batteries for smart grid applications, which will allow for the integration of wind energy and other renewable generation.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.