An engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory patented a zinc-air fuel cell that was recently licensed to Zinc Air Inc., Kalispell, Mont. The cell combines atmospheric oxygen with zinc pellets to generate electricity. All of the zinc is consumed, and the only by-product is zinc oxide, which is completely recyclable. The fuel cell can be refueled in 10 min, letting the cell be used almost constantly. In fact, a continuous-feed cell would never have to shut down for refueling.
Compared to lithium-ion batteries, the zinc-air fuel cell has several advantages. First zinc is widely available. The U. S. has 35% of the world’s supply, which currently stands at 1.8 gigatons. And 21 month’s worth of global zinc production could be used to manufacture 1 billion 10-kW-hr zinc-air cells. By contrast, it would take 180 years of lithium production to make an equivalent amount of lithium-ion batteries. And most supplies of lithium are outside the U. S., which likely means that lithium batteries would be made outside the U. S. Lithium batteries also take up to 10 hr to recharge and contain toxic elements. The zinc-air cell contains none.
It is likely that one of the first uses of the zinc fuel cell will be in electric fleet-deliver vehicles used by organizations like UPS, FedEx, and the Post Office. On a smaller scale, the cells could power a 1 to 3-kW generator.