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Lithium-ion batteries play an essential role in the fight against climate change. In fact, Li-ion–based technology is widely used both in electric vehicles (EVs), in which lightweight and high-performance batteries capable of supporting a high number of charge/discharge cycles are required, and for the storage of renewable energies, by their nature produced discontinuously.
Nonetheless, the raw materials required for the manufacture of Li-ion batteries will probably not be sufficient to cover the increasing market demand and possible supply issues that could jeopardize the complete transition to electric mobility. Hence, there is a need to develop alternative technologies to solve the emerging shortage of raw materials.
Although it is difficult now to find a replacement for lithium in EV batteries (given its extreme lightness), a different story applies to accumulators used for the temporary storage of energy produced from renewable sources. In this case, in fact, the weight and size requirements are no longer binding.
Salient’s zinc-ion technology
Founded in 2017 in Waterloo, Canada, Salient Energy has developed a technology for making safe, sustainable, and affordable zinc-ion batteries to be used as temporary storage in renewable-energy plants. Those facilities, essential for energy transition, store clean electricity when it’s abundant and deliver it when it’s needed.
“In 2013, when I started doing battery research in a campus lab, I was firmly convinced that batteries were the next big category of technology that would be needed to address climate change,” said Ryan Brown, CEO and co-founder of Salient Energy. “That’s where I met Brian, my co-founder, who invented this new zinc-ion battery.”
There will probably be a shortage of Li-ion batteries needed to combat climate change. The shortage of Li-ion materials is getting worse every year, as shown in Figure 1. Costs are increasing, and supply disruptions are becoming a serious issue.
Compared with lithium, zinc is almost 100× more abundant in the world, and the manufacturing of zinc-ion results in a two-thirds reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Salient Energy further reduces reliance on dangerous and high-risk supply chains by exclusively using metals mined, processed, and manufactured in North America.
“When we think about solving climate change, there are two things that really matter: scale and speed,” said Brown.
Regarding the first point, Salient Energy facilitates a quick switch to renewable energy by offering a scalable replacement for lithium-ion: zinc-ion.
According to Brown, to decarbonize the global electricity system in time to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need a stationary energy-storage industry that uses as many batteries as the current EV industry does, and we need them in the next 10 years. Because the Li-ion raw materials market is already experiencing a shortage from supplying the EV industry, it cannot be the solution for that. What is needed is an alternative technology that can replace Li-ion batteries.
“Since speed also matters, we need to build batteries using supply chains that already exist in abundancy — this is what makes our battery special,” said Brown.
Salient’s zinc-ion battery uses standard commodity-grade zinc and manganese dioxide used in disposable batteries. Those are widely available, low-cost, and non-toxic materials. Additionally, the novel technology relies on a water-based design that eliminates fire risk.
Because zinc has a high energy density, Salient can make compact-sized battery packs that can directly replace Li-ion batteries maintaining the same size, energy, and power.
Unlike traditional zinc batteries, which use high-pH electrolytes and chemical reactions at both electrodes, Salient’s zinc batteries use a neutral-pH electrolyte, which does not react with the electrodes. And because the electrodes don’t need much electrolyte, the resulting batteries are compact and low-cost (Figure 2). Moreover, because alkaline electrolytes are not used, batteries can be recharged thousands of times without any cathode corrosion.
“Our first focus is on residential energy-storage systems like the Tesla Powerwall, because we want to get things out really quickly,” said Brown.
“Working on smaller systems helps us learn quicker,” he added. “Afterward, we’re going to move on to larger systems like industrial and commercial applications. And after that will come the utility systems, which are very huge. That’s our roadmap.”
As Brown points out, zinc-ion’s ability to deliver the same performance as Li-ion in a similarly compact design means that energy-storage systems built with zinc-ion will be practically indistinguishable from those built with Li-ion. What Salient is trying to do is offer the same user experience and performance as the Li-ion batteries.
The main application of this technology is in renewable energy, where it can be used to efficiently store four to six hours of energy for more than 10 years. However, it is not intended for EVs; even though they are a similar size, Salient’s batteries cannot replace Li-ion batteries in a car due to their heavy weight. Additionally, the novel technology helps to substantially reduce costs, a key factor to make stationary energy storage work.
“We need to build factories as fast as we can,” said Brown. “We have to make sure that when there is that huge exponential increase, we will be ready to supply batteries to fulfill the market demand.”
In January 2021, Salient Energy was granted $1.5+ million from the California Energy Commission (CEC) to support the design and assembly of its zinc-ion residential energy-storage systems. The company used the grant funding to open an office and engineering facility in Oakland, California.
Salient will create, test in the field, and validate its best-in-class zinc-ion battery prototype applications for home storage systems at the new CEC-funded facility. Through this project, the company hopes to move the technology from a pre-commercial level to a technology demonstration stage, from which it can subsequently be verified and scaled.
Salient’s zinc-ion energy-storage technologies, when considered commercially viable, will hasten the acceptance and deployment of non-Li-ion energy storage in California and support efforts to achieve the state’s ambitious energy goals, including the replacement of fossil-fuel–powered backup generators.
“We’re working our butts off to scale up production in our pilot plant in Canada so that next year we can be producing our residential systems for pilot projects,” said Brown. “We are going to take those steps every one to two years, because by the end of this decade, we want to become the main battery supplier for the energy-storage market.”