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Better than lithium-ion?

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the proliferation of portable consumer gadgets: iPods, PSP, mobile phones and laptops are all power-hungry devices. A common lament is that battery technology has failed to keep up. Silver-zinc battery technology however, might just change that.

Previously, I've posted on topics such as the lesser-known tips on using lithium-ion batteries, as well as some of the very real dangers inherent to the technology. In relation to one of my lithium-ion battery articles, I was recently contacted by a company called ZPower. ZPower is currently working to roll out some products based on silver-zinc battery technology, and they wanted to tell me about it.

In a nutshell, the silver-zinc battery technology that ZPower is working to incorporate into consumer technology is inherently safe from explosions or from catching fire due to the absence of lithium.

Its main attraction lies in how much more charge a similarly-sized battery can hold - its power density. When pitted against lithium-ion batteries, a silver-zinc battery has 40 percent higher energy density. In addition, silver-zinc also offers plenty of potential to safely increase energy density and cycle life safely. In fact, the projected energy density improvement is expected to eventually hit approximately two times that of lithium-polymer.

To be honest, I had my moment of doubt - but before you dismiss it as another snake-oil operation, consider that ZPower counts Intel Capital as one of its investors. I was given the opportunity to interview Dr. Ross Deuber, the President and CEO of ZPower, Inc, and I took up the offer to pose him some questions via e-mail.

The interview

My questions and Dr. Deuber's responses are as follows:

I see silver-zinc technology being billed as "clean""technology. Why is that so? Deuber: The primary materials of ZPower batteries (i.e. silver and zinc) are fully recyclable. That means that the materials derived from the recycling process are of the same quality as the materials that went into the initial creation of the battery. This reduces the need to mine for new materials and minimizes the removal of silver and zinc from the earth's crust. In contrast, the primary elements of traditional lithium-ion batteries are downcycled and cannot be reused. The downcycling process reduces the original battery into raw materials of lower quality which can't be reused for battery production. Additional lithium must be obtained before another battery can be produced.

The silver recycling process already exists. Refiners perfected the processes over centuries for jewelry, tableware, photographic film, and electronics. Additionally, silver obtained from scrap makes up over 30% of the silver that is needed each year to satisfy world demand.

What are some of the obstacles to bringing out silver-zinc batteries onto the market? Deuber: At the present time in the development of silver-zinc rechargeable battery chemistry, there are no serious obstacles to bringing the technology into the market. Many of the fundamental chemical and technology challenges that were experienced in the earlier phases have been overcome. Right now, the focus is on scaling manufacturing processes to meet high anticipated demand. The ZPower manufacturing process is unique in many respects relative to that of alternative battery technologies. The current work is focused on achieving and maintaining world class quality. When can we expect to seeing appliances/gadgets start using silver-zinc batteries? Deuber: ZPower is currently working with leading manufacturers of notebook computers, cell phones, and smart phones to incorporate silver-zinc technology in next-generation products. Our first customer's new notebook PC product with the ZPower battery will start shipping early next year. This is a major notebook OEM, and the battery is slated to be released as an extended life battery in a notebook. The notebook will have the capability to work with either silver-zinc or lithium ion batteries (dual chemistry enabled).

Conclusion

ZPower further mentioned that it is in talks with several other high-profile laptop and cell phones OEMS to provide their technology as an option for their future devices. However, they declined to reveal any further details pertaining to the parties that they are working with.

They did also say that there will be review units available in early 2009. I'll be sure to post an update if I get to test out one of them.

Till then, perhaps you can take the poll and also share with us on your battery usage patterns.

About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

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