Super-safe zinc battery tech could rival lithium ion in phones

The new technology, created by researchers at the University of Maryland, offers a glimpse of a future in which phones never explode.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read

In a more perfect world, your phone battery would easily last all day, wouldn't degrade over time and, most crucially, wouldn't explode.

This might sound like a pipe dream, but researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a new water- and zinc-based battery that could go some way to meeting all three of those criteria and could end up in future consumer electronics.


Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 will be remembered for its exploding batteries.

Josh Miller/CNET

Details of the battery, which was developed with the US Army Research Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, were published in the journal Nature Materials on Monday.

The zinc and water combination is particularly effective in combating safety issues, such as the ones that caused Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries to explode back in 2016, leading to the phone's massive recall and then its demise. The new battery doesn't pose the same fire risks as lithium-ion batteries common in phones and laptops, according to the researchers. But neither is it a compromise when it comes to lifespan or an ability to hold a charge.

Zinc batteries are not new and have long been a safe, cheap energy option, but in the past they've also been curbed by their limited life cycle and low energy density. Conversely, their more expensive cousin, the lithium-ion battery, has been very effective in these areas, but doesn't have a spotless safety record. The new "aqueous zinc" battery offers the best of both worlds, according to Fei Wang, lead author on the journal paper and a postdoctoral associate at both the University of Maryland and the Army Research Laboratory.

"Water-based batteries could be crucial to preventing fires in electronics, but their energy storage and capacity have been limited -- until now," he said in a statement. "For the first time, we have a battery that could compete with the lithium-ion batteries in energy density, but without the risk of explosion or fire."

The researchers said their new battery could eventually be used in consumer electronics. It could also be used in extreme conditions to improve the performance of vehicles used in aerospace, military and deep-ocean environments, where an exploding battery could be catastrophic.

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