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6 September 2019

India’s Oil company wants to turn the EV tide to Zinc batteries

Trust India to go its own way on Electric Vehicles. This week the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has revealed a partnership which will see it get into building a 1 GW factory for EV batteries, but there won’t be a shred of Lithium in sight. Instead it plans to partner an Israeli firm which usually bases it battery technology on Aluminum (or Aluminium), air and water,  but also works with Zinc and won a major patent on rechargeable Zinc batteries in the US last year.

The concern IOC has is that China either holds most of the Lithium reserves or has options on many sources of Lithium globally and that there is none occurring naturally in India. It has been looking for a partner which could lower the cost of EV batteries and will tie up with Israeli firm Phinergy which mostly works with aluminum-air and zinc-air batteries intended for use in electric vehicles.

So far Phinergy has raised some $288 million  and it turns out that Indian Oil signed a joint cooperation agreement with Phinergy in 2018. But there is an embarrassing amount of Zinc in the ground in India and it has one of the largest producers of Zinc in Hindustan Zinc, so naturally prefers going down that route.

Zinc batteries have been around for years, but are tricky to make them re-chargeable mostly because it relies on a reaction with the Oxygen in the air and Zinc with an electrolyte then slowly turning into a slurry of non-helpful chemicals. One solution is to replace the electrolyte, and the other is eliminate the Aluminum hydroxide which forms on the anode. But the energy density of these batteries is fairly incredible, partly because of the nature of the reaction but also because the Oxygen does not have to be carried – effectively no cathode is included in the weight.

Reading through the Phinergy patents, it looks like the idea is to build an infrastructure based on electrolyte and anode replacement, and journey distances in the order of 3,000 kilometers have been cited – so the idea of replacing the batter or ingredients of the battery are more like going for a car service once in a while, rather than filling up with gasoline. There are others issue, like getting enough Oxygen to the reaction, which is dealt with using a proprietary electrode design from Phinergy which is porous.

We get the idea that the Indian effort is torn between making the batteries rechargeable, but only once or twice and then needing components replaced, and having a nationwide networks of replacement centers, partnered with renewable energy, which can be used to swap out the electrolyte and then “re-charge” the electrolyte and reverse the reaction and eventually put it back into another car. Some experts expect this to take about 5 hours. Another idea that has been mentioned is that a smaller Lithium Ion battery is included to allow a car with a depleted battery to use the Lithium battery to get to one such replacement centers.

Either way Phinergy says that the batteries are just 100kg in weight, a fifth of those in a Tesla EV.

The batteries are also being pitched as long term grid scale batteries to use for stationary energy storage for the grid.

The biggest issue here is going to be range anxiety when a car has a battery which lasts perhaps a couple of months, but fails at the most unexpected time.

This may turn out to be a solution that only works for a country like India, which has a low rate of car purchase, at very low pricing levels, and which has unpredictability built into its travels systems. India also has a high concentration of motor scooters and motorbikes, which may travel huge distances with one such battery. And the question must be asked, that if only India uses this approach, what will happen when a car is imported to India? Will it have to change over its drive train to the Indian battery type? Also will India alone be able to propel the R&D forward on this to get future cost advantages – something we are fairly sure the Lithium Ion community is committed to, with its global base.

Another interesting idea contained in this news is an oil company actually taking part in the technology driving its own demise – should oil companies look to invest in technology that will eliminate oil? When most of the time they are committed to “preventing” this transition from happening?

For India it has the added advantage that it is a major importer of oil, and has so few natural resources that are helpful to personal transport. We believe very strongly that oil companies should be involved in precisely this type of research, and have the technical and financial resources to make such transitions happen more rapidly.

The chairman is reported as saying, “The lithium-ion battery we see today is not the only answer, nor is it the best answer. For a country like India, we don’t have a single grain of lithium. So, if you are looking at EVs in a very big way, we have to look for something which is indigenously available. We are working on a solution which can be manufactured 100% indigenously.” And he intimated that it would use what he called the  “transition group of elements” which zeroes in on Zinc, rather than Aluminum.

The fact that the partnership is going straight to a manufacturing operation now, and not doing more research suggests plans are quite advanced but the

location of the plant has not yet been decided.

No car manufactures with a base in India were rolled out to say they are adopting such a battery, which suggests IOC has yet to approach them.

On the Phinergy website it describes its batteries as long duration delivering a charge for days and weeks; Long Standby, lasting for years without losing performance; flexible enough for grid balancing; zero emissions; low cost and quiet.

IOC said it has a strategic intent to scale up its presence in e-mobility as well as equipping customer touch-points with turbo-charging and battery-swapping facilities for EVs and plug-in hybrids.