The world’s reliance on lithium batteries and the relative scarcity of that key metal will put the energy transition at risk — unless cheaper alternatives are produced at giga-scale, according to the chief executive of Canadian start-up Salient Energy.

Ryan Brown tells Recharge that the zinc-ion batteries being developed by his company will be cheaper, safer and longer-lasting than lithium-ion — and be produced using the same manufacturing equipment that has helped to enable steep battery price drops in recent years.

“We have to rebuild the entire world’s grids to make them renewables-compatible,” says the 28-year-old entrepreneur. “And we have to double or triple the size of the world’s grids to enable electric vehicles and [green] hydrogen. Just [think of] the sheer amount of batteries required — it won’t be doable with lithium-ion. [Analysts] are already expecting shortages of lithium mid-decade.

“And when I say that the world’s going to be short of lithium, what I mean is every lithium battery will go to cars. Cause that’s where it makes sense to go, that’s where you need the low weight.

“Everywhere that’s not a car, we can use a heavier battery, like zinc-ion, that’s cheaper, safer and longer-lasting.”

Such markets include residential, commercial and industrial energy storage, as well as boats and ships, where weight is not an issue but safety is critically important.

“I think there's also a supply chain security argument here,” Brown adds. “So not just about abundance, but the fact that all lithium processing happens in China at a time when [international] relationships are becoming strained. As it stands, the world's clean-tech ambitions are dependent on relations with China. That seems like a risk.”

Salient’s patented technology

Salient Energy utilises a zinc-ion battery chemistry developed by chief technical officer Brian Adams — “not the rock star, but a rock-star chemist” — which consists of a zinc anode, a pH-neutral zinc sulphate electrolyte and a manganese oxide-based cathode.

Salient Energy's chief technical officer and 'rock-star chemist', Brian Adams, holding a zinc-ion battery cell. Photo: Salient Energy

The water-based electrolyte means the battery cannot catch fire, while the two raw materials required — zinc and manganese — are far less scarce and much cheaper than lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are all needed for standard lithium-ion batteries.

Zinc and manganese ore are also mined in North America, enabling “an alternate supply-chain that doesn’t involve China”.

The result is a modular battery that offers very similar performance to lithium-ion, but will inevitably end up 30-50% cheaper in terms of the levelised the cost of storage (LCOS), once the technology is scaled up.

“If you look at Tesla’s Battery Day [last September]… they said that most of the cost gains have been in manufacturing and economies of scale, but they’re running into the fact that material costs are the biggest component and those aren’t being reduced,” says Brown. “So having a battery that has much lower material costs is exciting for this next wave of cost reduction.”

Salient's funding

To date, Salient Energy has been funded by high-net-worth individuals and grants from the Canadian government and oil giant Shell’s GameChanger programme.

The Nova Scotia-based company already has the funding in place to build its pilot plant, and it is looking into opening an investment round in the near future.

The LCOS of Salient’s zinc-ion batteries will also be lower than lithium-ion because they will have longer lifespans — 15-20 years compared to the ten years offered by standard lithium-ion.

Brown acknowledges that zinc-based batteries have been around for decades, but says that Salient’s zinc-ion technology is the first to operate the same way as lithium-ion — with four-hour charging and discharging and same-sized battery packs.

“It operates very similarly, and importantly, it’s built the same way. And what this results in is a battery that’s as easy to manufacture as lithium-ion but uses fundamentally cheap, safe and abundant materials. And when we package it together in a device, from a system integrator’s point of view, it’s basically indistinguishable from lithium-ion. It is heavier, but for the markets we’re going after it takes up the same space, so it feels the same.

“We can get all the equipment from China dirt cheap. Then our material cost is about half [that of lithium-ion], so we have a better cost potential than lithium.”

Salient Energy chief executive Ryan Brown. Photo: Salient Energy

Scale needed to reach low prices

However, to be able to undercut lithium-ion battery prices, Salient would have to scale up its technology and build gigafactories of its own to achieve the required economies of scale — something that Brown is hoping to achieve in the second half of this decade.

Salient will this year begin work on a pilot manufacturing facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is due to become operational in 2022. Then it plans to attract enough capital to build “a few hundred megawatt hour plant” by the end of 2024.

Brown says he expects this relatively small first factory to produce batteries that would be 50-100% more expensive than lithium-ion — which would be marketed towards “safety-focused niches, where we can charge a premium”.

But he adds: “Once we’ve had [the modules] in the field operating, once we’ve shown we can manufacture it such that we can get $1bn-plus in capital to build a gigafactory, then we’ll start beating lithium-ion on cost.

“We would like to eventually have a Gigafactory opening on every continent.”

However, Brown adds that the company, also based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would consider alternative business plans if different opportunities arose.

“Of course, if we had a good battery manufacturing partner that wanted to license this and could accelerate the adoption of our tech, we would do that,” he says.

“If we believe this [zinc-ion technology] lowers the cost of storage, which we do, and therefore will enable more renewables adoption, it’d be a bit morally repugnant to say no.”

Brown — who says his work is focused on the fight against climate change, rather than making money — would even consider selling the company if it meant zinc-ion batteries would reach the market sooner.

“Panasonic [for example] is really good at making batteries. They could probably shave a few years off our development time and get it out quicker. Of course we’d say yes [if Panasonic offered to buy Salient]. We want this technology out there. We don’t have to be on the cover of Fortune magazine.”