US Navy develops 'breakthrough' rechargeable zinc battery to replace lithium-ion technology

Zinc could end our dependence on fire-prone litihum-ion batteriesReuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Scientists may be close to developing a new type of battery for powering smartphones, laptops and other types of consumer gadgets without the safety risks posed by lithium-ion technology. Researchers from the US Naval Research Laboratory's (NRL) Chemistry Division say they have created a rechargeable zinc-based battery that can be recharged and used repeatedly, describing it as a "breakthrough" in battery tech.

Zinc has long been used in single-use batteries but deemed unsuitable for repeat applications. This is because over time, zinc batteries form whisker-like deformities called dendrites that eventually cause the battery to short-circuit.

The research team was able to get around this problem by developing a 3D zinc "sponge" in the place of powdered zinc inside the battery, which distributes electric charge more evenly within the battery and helps prevents formation of dendrites.

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The result is a zinc-based battery that offers capacity to rival that of lithium-ion technology without the associated fire risks.

"Our team at the NRL pioneered the architectural approach to the redesign of electrodes for next-generation energy storage," said Debra Rolison, senior scientist and principal investigator on the project. "The 3-D sponge form factor allows us to re-imagine zinc, a well-known battery material, for the 21st century."

The so-called Ni-3-D Zn battery proved capable of extending the lifespan of single-use battery cells as well as repeatedly charging cells to capacity. It is hoped that the technology could eventually serve as a replacement to lithium-ion batteries, which have been banned from Navy ships and other military platforms due to their fire-prone nature.

A number of commercial airlines banned the Galaxy Note 7 from flights following highly-publicised reports of faulty handsets catching fire.

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