Mobility

Why zinc-air batteries could make our smartphones cheaper and more efficient

Researchers at the University of Sydney have developed a method for recharging zinc-air batteries that could make them a more green replacement for lithium ion batteries in electronics.

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A researcher holds a zinc-air battery.

Image: University of Sydney

A new advance in battery technology could lead to a new way to power smartphones that is more powerful, more environmentally friendly, and cheaper. Research out of the University of Sydney, published Monday, outlines a new solution for recharging zinc-air batteries that could help them replace lithium ion batteries in smartphone manufacturing.

Why is that a big deal? Because there is so much zinc in the world, the batteries are much cheaper to produce than their lithium ion counterparts. Also, in theory, they can store up to five times more energy than lithium ion batteries, the University of Sydney noted in a press release. Additionally, they cause less strain on the environment, and they are regarded as a safer option than lithium ion batteries as well.

Some products like hearing aids and film cameras already use zinc-air batteries, but they haven't been able to see wider adoption due to the fact that they have historically been very difficult to recharge. That is where the recent research comes into play.

SEE: Video: The truth behind smartphone battery myths

According to the release, the limitations came from a lack of electrocatalysts that manage oxygen levels during the charging or discharging of this kind of battery.

However, the researchers have been able to create bifunctional oxygen electrocatalysts that make it easier to build rechargeable zinc-air batteries from the ground up. They do this by controlling the composition, size, and crystallinity of metal oxides in elements like iron, cobalt, and nickel, the release noted.

"Up until now, rechargeable zinc-air batteries have been made with expensive precious metal catalysts, such as platinum and iridium oxide. In contrast, our method produces a family of new high-performance and low-cost catalysts," University of Sydney professor Yuan Chen, lead author, said in the release.

Early trials look good, with the new batteries showing "less than a 10 percent battery efficacy drop over 60 discharging/charging cycles of 120 hours," the release said.

"We are solving fundamental technological challenges to realise more sustainable metal-air batteries for our society," Chen said in the release.

While the research does look promising, Stanford was working on a similar zinc-air battery research solution back in 2013. Stanford built a battery that used a cobalt-oxide air catalyst, but not much has been done since then.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A new rechargeable zinc-air batteries could make smartphones last longer and be cheaper to manufacture.
  2. The work, from University of Sydney and Nanyang Technological University researchers, uses bifunctional oxygen electrocatalysts to make the batteries easier to recharge.
  3. While the research looks promising, similar work has been done at other universities and hasn't yet made its way into large-scale production.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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