Zinc-Air, The Next Contender In Vehicle Batteries?

If you’ve got an interest in technology, it’s inevitable that your feed will feature a constant supply of stories with titles in the vein of “New battery breakthrough offers unlimited life and capacity!”. If we had a pound, dollar, or Euro for each one, we’d be millionaires by now. But while the real science behind the breathless headlines will undoubtedly have provided incremental battery improvements, we’re still waiting for the unlimited battery.

It’s not to say that they don’t conceal some interesting stories though, and there’s an announcement from Australia proving this point admirably. Scientists at ECU in Perth have created a new cathode compound for rechargeable zinc-air batteries, which it is hoped will make them much safer and cheaper competitors for lithium-ion cells.

Most of us think of zinc-air batteries as the tiny cells you’d put in a camera or a hearing aid, but these conceal a chemistry with significant potential that is held back by the difficulty of creating a reliable cathode. In these batteries the cathode is a porous support in which a reaction between zinc powder wet paste and oxygen in the air occurs, turning zinc into zinc oxide and releasing electrons which can be harvested as electricity. They have a very high power density, but previous cathode materials have quickly degraded performance when presented with significant load.

The new cathode support is a nano-composite material containing cobalt, nickel, and iron, and is claimed to offer much better performance without the degradation. Whether or not it can be mass-produced remains to be seen, but as a possible alternative to lithium-ion in portable and transport applications it’s of great interest.