Zinc on the Brink of New Beginnings

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An article in The New York Times makes a compelling case for why we may be looking at zinc as an exciting technology metal in years to come (rather than its traditional image as the galvanizing metal that stops steel from rusting).

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The article reports on billionaire biotechnology entrepreneur Dr. Soon-Shiong’s NantEnergy, developers and manufacturers of zinc air storage batteries.

His energy company says it is the first to commercialize the use of zinc air batteries. Last week the company announced cost savings and technological improvements had achieved a storage cost of less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, said to be a game changer for renewable energy grid storage applications.

Limited prevailing lithium-ion storage is estimated, The New York Times says, to be about $300-$400 per kilowatt-hour, even before considerations of metal scarcity and supply chain vulnerability associated with lithium, cobalt and other trace elements used in the standard lithium-ion battery.

No one is suggesting zinc air batteries will take over in retail appliances, electric cars or drones. For these kinds of applications, weight is a critical factor and the power density of zinc air batteries is not the same as lithium-ion.

However, for static grid or off-grid storage, weight is inconsequential. Cost is the overriding factor and low-cost grid storage is currently the biggest drag on national or regional grids embracing more solar and wind power.

To be viable, both economically and in terms of service, renewable technologies need massive storage to even out generation and consumption flows.

While NantEnergy has undoubtedly made a successful start, it is far from alone in pioneering zinc air batteries.

An article early this year in Mining Journal quoted sources saying U.S.-based Eos Energy Storage “appears to have the highest traction in the space at present, and announced early last year it had started a collaboration with Germany’s Siemens on the integration, installation and servicing of energy storage systems.”

At that time, Eos was already offering its Znyth battery system for delivery in 2022 at a price of U.S. $95 per usable kWh contained in a single cycle of the battery. Such competition will help further drive innovation and, in turn, uptake of the technology. The same article put a figure of 19.8 million tons as the possible demand for the metal related to a zinc air battery rollout.

The article also cites research done by Stormcrow Capital on current and emerging global energy storage needs connected to nuclear and renewable capacity. The firm postulates demand for storage could run to 4,404 GWh, of which 3,904 GWh would be for renewables. The article reports Stormcrow’s research, which says, “The zinc metal demand from 4,404 GWh of zinc-air battery storage would be roughly 19,818,000 metric tons of metal,” or more than the 2016 mined production of zinc (estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey at 11.9 million tons).

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Thankfully, demand will ramp up only gradually as the technology proves itself and costs continue to fall. But zinc air has such a compelling case over lithium-ion that the technology is sure to be a key part of the solution for grid storage and will increasingly become a significant factor in global zinc demand over the next decade.

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