Contributed by Tim Hysell – Co-Founder and CEO, ZincFive, Inc.
Battery energy storage helps ensure the reliability of mission-critical infrastructure such as data centers, transportation systems, and increasingly, the grid itself. So, in a world of disrupted supply chains, it’s high time to safeguard battery supply chains by expanding the use of multiple battery types and chemistries. Applying the best-fit battery chemistry for each job simultaneously reduces risk and improves the performance of our battery energy storage infrastructure.
The White House has publicly recognized batteries’ crucial role in our grid and communication systems. Last March saw the president invoke the Defense Production Act to spur domestic mining and processing of minerals used to make batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage facilities. In May 2022, the Department of Energy announced that $3.16B from the $65B Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would go towards (among other activities) supporting domestic critical mineral supply chains used in battery production. The Inflation Reduction Act, enacted last summer, provides battery cell manufacturers with tax credits for batteries produced domestically. The Administration’s praiseworthy efforts will help lower costs and improve our competitive position for lithium materials and battery chemistries. However, we must do more to secure our battery supply chains.
To ensure widely available energy storage solutions, we need to diversify the use of battery chemistries and materials. A variety of battery chemistries have recently emerged that use more readily available materials, looking beyond lithium. Adding other battery types to our energy storage mix relieves stress on the overall battery material supply chain, preserving those limited resources for applications that require their exact performance qualities.
For example, lithium-ion batteries are a good fit for electric vehicles because they have high energy density relative to their weight. They can store vast amounts of energy in a lightweight package, then release that energy slowly over the course of several hours (even days) of use. This allows them to power cars for long periods of time without overburdening the vehicle and makes them ideal for mobile phone applications, where lightness and long-term battery power also matter.
ln contrast, some energy storage applications require the opposite: high-power density batteries that can deliver massive amounts of electricity for a short time period. For instance, data center backup power systems require batteries that can power the entire data center and prevent catastrophic data losses in case of a power shortage – but only for a few minutes, until the backup generators kick in. Such applications benefit from power-dense batteries such as nickel-zinc, which are designed to safely handle critical short-duration needs for high electricity loads.
Flow batteries can grow energy storage capacity without affecting the power rating. Flow technology stores energy in tanks of liquid electrolytes, separating the energy storage section of these batteries from the power production section. So, increasing a flow battery’s energy storage only requires increasing the tank size, not buying a new battery. This easily increased energy storage capacity makes them a promising option for grid-scale, long-duration energy storage. And like nickel-zinc, these batteries provide greater safety than lithium because of their inherent non-flammability.
Other battery chemistries in development include zinc-manganese dioxide, sodium-ion, and rechargeable aluminum – each with their own set of benefits (safety, availability of materials, affordability, and longevity) and suitable applications.
Nickel, zinc, aluminum, iron, and other alternative base materials are often much more available and less expensive than lithium, and can require a less intensive mining process. Using more widely available, less expensive materials for stationary applications strengthens the battery supply chain and associated production capacity.
This is particularly crucial considering lithium’s increasing demand as the electric car and grid storage markets grow. Lithium demand is projected to triple from 2020 levels by 2025, risking global shortages. For battery-dependent operations to continue functioning smoothly, lithium batteries should only be used where they’re truly needed – for example, electric cars.
Since other battery chemistries like nickel-zinc are better suited for backup power and short-duration ancillary services, using them in those cases will relieve the growing demand for lithium. By focusing specific chemistries for the applications they’re best suited for, we can use a wider range of batteries overall and thus ease price increases and supply shortages.
No single battery chemistry can be the perfect fit for all the continually expanding battery applications – vehicles, transportation systems, grids, data centers, and more. A greater selection of chemistries lets operators prioritize specific advantages such as greater sustainability, space conservation, maintenance costs, reliability, and safety. Microgrid developers and users have already realized this – they’re increasingly turning to more diverse battery chemistries, and even using multiple types of batteries to fulfill different functions in the same microgrid.
Supporting a wide number of chemistries allows optimization for different applications, eases pressure on supply chains, and helps reduce costs throughout the industry. If we want to strengthen the battery supply chain – ever more urgent as the demand for energy storage continues to rise – we must support the development and adoption of alternative chemistries.
About the author
Tim Hysell is the co-founder and CEO of ZincFive, the world leader in innovation and delivery of nickel-zinc batteries and power solutions. Tim has over three decades of entrepreneurial success in founding, owning, and directing profitable business operations in renewable energy, banking, manufacturing, and medical devices. His companies partnered with global giants such as Siemens, Phillips, and Hewlett-Packard. Prior to owning his own businesses, Tim worked for General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and Providence Health Systems.
Tim is also a co-founder and board member of Pacific West Bank in Oregon.