Green

Will lithium ion get replaced? Longer lasting, recyclable batteries due in laptops this summer

Lithium ion technology batteries have been on the market for over 16 years now, and like a human of the same age, the technology’s growth appears to be slowing. Improvements in the battery technology are lessening each year, and the power demand from electronics, fueled by chip advances, makes it feel as if time is standing still for lithium ions — phones and laptops don’t stay charged much longer than they ever did.

We’ve reported on a few companies trying to leap ahead in lithium ions technology, including Boston Power, Lion Cells and Nanoexa (coverage here, here and here). But ZPower, a battery startup based on an entirely different technology, says its time to chuck the lithium ions entirely and move to a next-generation technology that’s longer lasting and more easily recyclable.

ZPower makes use of decades-old silver zinc technology, which offers greater power density (essentially, how much electricity a battery can hold) than lithium ion, but allows far fewer recharges before becoming useless. ZPower’s breakthrough is raising the number of times a silver zinc battery can be recharged to be comparable to lithium ion, research which took the company over a decade.

The immediate improvement will provide about 40 percent more power, according to ZPower CEO Ross Dueber. And you may not have to wait long to get a laptop that can last all day unplugged; the company has partnered with one of the top manufacturers of laptops to roll out an ultra-thin notebook around this August, with further product launches coming afterward. The company is in the process of raising about $30 million to scale up manufacturing.

Dueber estimates that it could take three or four years less for silver zinc to capture a large part of the market than it did for lithium ion, which took about eight years, based on ZPower’s plans for licensing out the technology. The limiting factor in its potential growth is the incompatibility of silver zinc batteries with existing devices — new cellphones, laptops and other electronics have to be designed for the type of battery they use, so you can’t simply pop in a new silver zinc battery to replace your old lithium ion.

Once you do have a silver zinc battery, however, there’s more than one benefit. The material inside can be recycled for re-use in another battery, so you’d get money toward the purchase of a new battery in exchange for returning your old one — which also helps keep the landfills cleaner. (Lithium ions can also be recycled, but are generally just broken down for the various metals inside, a less lucrative proposition.)

ZPower has no immediate plans to move outside of the electronics market, which means that lithium ion applications in cars, power tools and elsewhere will be safe from it. However, lithium ion is also under attack in those quarters. Take for instance dark-horse candidate EEStor, a company that claims its ultracapacitor technology can outperform a battery in rapid discharge applications (like when you jam down the acceleration pedal of your Tesla Roadster). The latest reports have pegged the release of an EEStor-powered car in 2009, manufactured by Zenn.

However, lithium ion may also have an ace in the hole. Although it’s too early to tell if the technology can be easily commercialized, researchers at MIT report that using specialized nanowires in a lithium ion battery can triple its energy density. And a separate group of researchers at Stanford, also using nanowires, have increased density ten times over. Of course, similar improvements might also be possible for silver zinc.

ZPower received its last venture round in 2006, $7 million from Intel Capital, OnPoint Technologies and a private equity group. The company is based in Camarillo, Calif.

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