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Zinc-Air Batteries Cheaper Than Lithium-Ion?

Lithium-ion batteries have become essential for powering electric cars and storing energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines. But their drawbacks are also by now familiar: They use scarce minerals, are vulnerable to fires and explosions, and are pricey.

A plentiful, safe and more affordable alternative would be worth a lot.

On Wednesday, an energy company headed by the California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong announced that it had developed a rechargeable battery operating on zinc and air that can store power at far less than the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

Tests of the zinc energy-storage systems have helped power villages in Africa and Asia as well as cellphone towers in the United States for the last six years, without any backup from utilities or the electric grid, Dr. Soon-Shiong said.

“It could change and create completely new economies using purely the power of the sun, wind and air,” Dr. Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and a biotechnology entrepreneur, said in an interview in Los Angeles before the announcement.

Dr. Soon-Shiong and his company, NantEnergy, made the announcement in conjunction with the One Planet Summit in New York, an event meant to further the goals of the Paris climate accords. He developed the technology with support from the World Bank.

The battery units, in conjunction with solar arrays, can be combined to create a microgrid system powering a village or a larger area, Dr. Soon-Shiong said. They have been deployed to support 110 villages in nine countries in Asia and Africa — including places that otherwise relied on generators or even lacked electricity, he said.

Dr. Soon-Shiong amassed a fortune as a biotechnology entrepreneur. His energy company says it is the first to commercialize the use of zinc air batteries.CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

The International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank fostering private-sector projects in developing countries, was an early investor in NantEnergy, and an agency representative sits on the company’s board.

The United States Department of Energy made development grants to NantEnergy (formerly known as Fluidic Energy) totaling $5 million, Dr. Soon-Shiong said.

NantEnergy, based in Phoenix and in El Segundo, Calif., says it expects to expand the use of its product in telecommunications towers and eventually extend it to home energy storage, beginning in California and New York. Beyond that, it anticipates use in electric cars, buses, trains and scooters.

Dr. Soon-Shiong, who recently acquired The Los Angeles Times and is a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, made a fortune from the development of drugs to fight diabetes and breast cancer and the sale of pharmaceutical companies he had created.

His energy company says it is the first to commercialize the use of zinc air batteries and has more than 100 related patents. It is taking orders for delivery next year and sees the potential for a $50 billion market.

Dr. Soon-Shiong said the cost of his zinc air battery had dropped steadily since development began. NantEnergy says the technology costs less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, a figure that some in the energy industry have cited as low enough to transform the electric grid into a round-the-clock carbon-free system.

The prevailing cost of lithium-ion technology varies, depending on the scale and application. Yogi Goswami, distinguished university professor and director of the Clean Energy Center at the University of South Florida, estimated that it is most likely $300 to $400 a kilowatt-hour.


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