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Zinc air battery maker looks beyond lithium

ReVolt Technologies is one of a handful of companies trying to develop metal air batteries as an alternative lithium ion batteries.

Start-up ReVolt Technology is developing rechargeable zinc air batteries, a technology it says promises longer runtime for consumer electronics and plug-in vehicles.

The Switzerland-based company, which was spun out of a Norwegian research institute five years ago, anticipates commercializing a rechargeable coin-size batteries next year. But the technology has the potential to be a cheaper and more energy-dense alternative to lithium ion batteries in consumer electronics,grid storage, and transportation, according to CEO James McDougall.

The components of ReVolt's current rechargeable battery technology include an air electrode, an interface below it in blue, and a zinc electrode. ReVolt Technologies

Zinc air batteries, which are already used in hearing aids, create an electrical current through a chemical reaction between zinc and the oxygen in air. Researchers have pursued rechargeable zinc air batteries for many years because zinc is relatively abundant and the internal chemistry, safe.

But there remain some technical challenges. After multiple charge-discharge cycle, the anode in zinc air batteries can become damaged and stop working. McDougall said ReVolt is trying to reach between 500 and 2,000 charge cycles, depending on whether the battery is used for consumer electronics or large-scale storage.

ReVolt engineers are working on a new design in which a zinc slurry is pumped through tubes that act as an air electrode, causing the chemical reaction that produces a current, McDougall explained. He expects it will take four or five years to commercialize the technology for large-scale applications, such as grid storage.

The company has raised 24 million Euros in funding, including an investment from power generator RWE of Germany, which is looking at the zinc air for storage on the electricity grid. ReVolt has applied for an ARPA-E grantaimed at breakthrough energy technologies but was not chosen in the first round of awards.

For vehicles, it makes sense to combine the relatively large energy storage of zinc air batteries with other storage technologies, McDougall said. Power-dense lithium ion batteries could be used for boosts of acceleration and ultracapacitorscould capture energy from regenerative braking.

"You could increase the range of next-generation of electric vehicles with hybrid storage... You could get three times the range, eliminate the safety concerns, and cut the cost of the system," he said.

Updated at 10:55 AM pt with corrected timing for coin-size battery release.