There are four types of mainstream batteries in the world, and local inventors hope nickel-zinc will be the fifth — from Wilsonville-based company ZincFive.
In May, ZincFive landed an endorsement from the Oregon Department of Transportation — a two-year process, it's one of the nation's most rigorous transportation testing labs.
ZincFive is the inventor of the world's first environmentally safe, nickel-zinc battery alternative to many lead-acid and lithium-ion applications.
ODOT approved ZincFive as its first green battery backup alternative to lead-acid batteries for traffic signals.
"It takes a long time to get approval," said Pete Johnson, ZincFive's vice president of sales and traffic solutions. "The State of Oregon put our product through vigorous testing, doing everything from lab testing, climate chamber testing, basically bake your product to make sure it can handle the environmental extremes — we passed all of those and then did a field test."
Now, ZincFive's patented nickel-zinc battery solution is listed on ODOT's Green Sheets list of trusted products, and cities in Oregon can now choose nickel-zinc over lead-acid.
"It's been successful — because of the vigorous testing they did, it's now on to the State of Oregon Green Sheets," Johnson said. "What happens when you get approved by a municipality — the Department of Transportation or a state — it opens up the door for all the other regions and municipalities in the state to buy your product."
The battery backs up the intersection lights when the utility power is out.
"The weather extremes there and ice storms out in the Gorge can result in loss of utility power to the signals," Johnson said. "Without battery backup, semi (truck) traffic can back up onto Interstate 84, and there are all sorts of safety problems with that."
This marks the first time ODOT has included an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional lead-acid batteries, first invented in 1859.
"It changes technology almost the way Tesla (the company) did. He (Elon Musk) nailed it — he not only had a cool battery, he packaged it in a way that was totally awesome," said Dan Sisson, vice president of research and innovation. "We're doing the same thing: we have a battery and we're putting it in a really cool product. In that way, we'll be successful."
The nickel-zinc batteries are unique because they don't dispatch heat when performing. The chemistry is tailor-made for mission-critical battery backup applications. It's also cost-comparable with high-end lead systems, as well as others, yet many global markets aren't aware of it.
"Quite frankly the ones you hear about the world having problems with blowing up, catching on fire, or are bad for our planet in terms of recyclability and the environment — that's where nickel-zinc can have a significant impact," said Tim Hysell, CEO. "When you look at our battery chemistry, we don't blow up or catch fire and we are extremely recyclable and environmentally friendly."
The pricing for the nickel-zinc battery is lower than the high-power lithium-ion cells, they withstand a wider range of temperature changes and they charge faster in a safe way.
"There are large corporations that are publically already adopting our technology through license agreements," Hysell said. "Anyone who has a large market opportunity and is frustrated with lead-acid and afraid of lithium-ion, you probably should give us a call."
More than a battery company
"You have to be a battery company and also a solutions provider to help solve problems," said Hysell. "ODOT is a great example: if we had given ODOT nickel-zinc, it would've failed because they wouldn't know how to maximize it. It took a whole solutions package, battery backup system and battery software to maximize performance for ODOT to be so excited — and Los Angeles, and other departments across North America."
During the testing, the nickel-zinc batteries were put inside the environmental chamber, with temperatures ranging from -30 to 165 Fahrenheit — something lead batteries cannot survive, which are usually tested outside the chamber.
"That is a completely mindblowing experience for them, that a battery could actually go through the chamber safely. When you think about it, that makes sense — the battery is going to go through those (temperatures) in the world," Sisson said. "People have gotten used to compensating for the poor performance of lead-acid — that's why really, at first they don't believe it."
Lithium batteries also have shortcomings — like catching on fire. Nickel-zinc has no flight restrictions, as it doesn't heat up when used — that, coupled with education on strategic usability, makes for a strong product.
"This company has two prongs: the battery chemical side, and the intelligence we've invented for product-management systems," Sisson said. "That's why acquiring the battery company PowerGenix (in 2016) was so smart — we had the other side, now we have both. We really don't feel there's much we can't take on."
The transportation marketplace
They're being adopted down in Los Angeles, across the country and up into Canada.
"Autonomous vehicles — where we get excited — nickel-zinc fits in two areas of that marketplace," Hysell said. "They need to be communicating with the infrastructure of the city — smart cities, if you look at info hubs, aren't smart cities any longer if they don't have utilities up and running. It's important to build cities with a (battery) backup in mind so autonomous vehicles can do what they intend to do."
Another nice application is the start-stop micro-hybrid, Hysell said. "It's a combination of a combustion engine with batteries. When you pull up to a stoplight, idling in rush hour, the engine shuts off. Everything within your vehicle remains operational off the batteries — but the moment you touch the accelerator, it turns back on."
The tech is already deployed for emergency vehicles like ambulances so they can pull up to the scene and shut the ambulance off, but everything within the am bulance stays operational using the batteries.
"Patrol cars across the country are looking at this use case," Hysell said. "You can retrofit this into existing vehicles. We're partnering with (Stealth Power in) Texas to provide this service to these emergency vehicles — even the military is looking at these certain applications, as well."
Another application is truck drivers, who pull over in rest areas and sleep in their trucks like tiny houses on the road. Now, they won't have to idle for 4-10 hours and the A/C will still run, cutting down on noise, pollution and waste.
"The market is ready for a disruptive technology," Sisson said. "Lead-acid has run its course, hit its limit. There are more demands for that old technology than it can meet. Lithium has tried, but has limitations."
More than a century ago, Thomas Edison experimented with nickel-zinc electrochemistry. He hoped to create an ideal battery — non-toxic, lightweight and able to meet high energy demand needs, such as powering miners' safety lamps. In 1901, Edison was awarded a patent for a rechargeable nickel-zinc battery system.
"He could never commercialize it," Johnson said. "It took 100 years of technological advancements."
The global lead-acid battery market is reportedly worth $48 billion a year — and projected to reach $58.5 billion by 2020, according to Persistence Market Research Newswire — which will be a tough challenge to compete with, let alone overturn.
"It'll take time, but we think for many reasons we're the right choice for a lead-acid based application," Hysell said. "We're excited about other large, global applications — they'll be deployed for our first battery backup system for a data center this year — and they're very excited about embracing our technology, and predominantly they've used lead-acid batteries in the past."
Also, raising battery technology from awareness to commercialization costs 10 years and $100 million by Hysell's estimate, which ZincFive has already surpassed.
"There are new materials Edison didn't have — some of the materials we use are thanks to the lithium-ion industry," Sisson said. "They gave us a really nice separator Edison didn't have. Edison didn't stumble across the right formula for the electrolyte — that was a big breakthrough for this technology."
That's the chemical side.
"On the other side of it, we came up with electronics to control nickel-zinc. It's one thing to have the chemicals, another to have the smarts to do that. We thank the smart processors," Sisson said. "Edison never had access to that kind of stuff ... it allowed those changes to come out."