Commercialisation of zinc-based energy storage solution

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Energy is central to every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Access to energy is critical for education, healthcare, job creation, transportation and information and communications technology. Yet one in five people lack access to electricity and 3 billion rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. Today most climate emissions can be traced to fossil fuel energy production, so a managed and timely transition to clean energy is essential. All ICMM members implement the 10 principles and related position statements that underpin our Sustainable Development Framework. ICMM’s position statement on climate change commits member companies to being part of the solution.

When the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially came into force in January 2016, the nations of the world committed to mobilise efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. Business has a significant part to play, alongside governments and civil society, in creating pathways for a greener, safer and sustainable future for us all. Metals and minerals are essential to almost all aspects of everyday life; they enable farming, healthcare, communications, construction, transport and energy and water supply. And they will arguably become more important as they help to deliver the infrastructure required for a low-carbon future. This is one of a series of case studies gathered from our members to highlight how companies are working to enhance their contribution to society and help industry to manage potential adverse impacts their activities may have on the realisation of some of the SDGs.

Around the world, thousands of communities lack access to stable energy sources. Typically, these isolated communities rely on diesel generators that are costly to operate, and which also produce polluting emissions. Renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power, are attractive alternatives, but they produce power intermittently.

Teck is the primary investor in the development of clean battery technology through ZincNyx Energy Solutions, a Vancouver-based start-up that is working to develop and commercialise zinc-air flow batteries. For Teck, this represents an opportunity to facilitate the development of a technology that could have broad implications for the way energy is generated and used. It could also support broader adoption of low-carbon power sources.

The energy storage challenge

Energy storage helps increase access to clean energy in multiple ways. First, it addresses the issue of intermittency in the production of wind and solar energy by providing power at times when generation is limited or unavailable. Second, it can relieve pressure on the mains grid infrastructure which is being placed under increasing strain as more renewable energy comes online.

Third, energy storage provides a means to increase access to energy for rural or other off-grid communities, where conventional mains electricity is either unaffordable or unavailable. In these situations flow batteries have the potential to replace or hybridise diesel generators, reducing harmful emissions as well as increasing energy security and reducing the cost of trucking diesel to remote locations.

In short, energy storage helps to balance supply and demand more effectively than the electricity grid. ZincNyx estimates that the market for energy storage is around $10bn.

Many companies have developed prototype energy storage systems such as lithium-ion batteries but have faced challenges such as high costs and limited operating conditions. Flow batteries have the potential to overcome these challenges.

Since 2012, ZincNyx has been developing a modular energy storage system designed to deliver backup power in the range of 5 to 100 kilowatts over extended periods of time. The flow battery technology developed by ZincNyx uses zinc as fuel.

A flow battery is a rechargeable fuel cell in which an electrolyte containing one or more dissolved electroactive elements flows through an electrochemical cell that reversibly converts chemical energy to electricity (see box, right). The total amount of electricity that can be generated depends on the size of the storage tanks.

Flow batteries are modular, stable and portable, and have no emissions. They can be installed in remote communities or integrated within existing power grids. They have the potential to provide long-term, on-demand and cost-effective energy storage.

To advance their research, ZincNyx has formed strategic partnerships with University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Queens University and the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy. In 2014, ZincNyx released a prototype, and secured further funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Teck is a major funding partner for the venture, which has also attracted major external funding including CAN$2.9m funding from the Canadian government.

Outcomes

This example highlights two relatively unusual roles that can be played by mining companies in contributing to the SDGs. The first is the involvement of a mining company as an investor in a high-risk enterprise. Teck’s backing of ZincNyx has provided a boost to the venture’s credibility, and helped to attract government funding for further business development. The second unusual role is the innovative application of a relatively common mining product (zinc) as a major component of an energy storage medium.

Teck’s involvement in this venture demonstrates how a major mining company can catalyse innovation through its core product in order to meet a major societal need, while also developing its core business.

ICMM members supporting the SDGs