Apple to pioneer use of Silver-Zinc battery technology?

I've heard rumors that Apple is going to make some radical changes to the 17-inch MacBook Pro's battery configuration. My understanding is that the new unibody 17-inch laptop will last as much as 50% longer on a single charge as the current 17-inch laptop. Additionally, Apple is building in the battery like it does on the MacBook Air, iPods and iPhone instead of making it removable like current MacBook Pros.

How does Apple plan on doing this both from a technology perspective and a public relations perspective? What technology will they use? Super capacitors or fuel cells? Maybe even carbon nano tube based cells? Not yet.

My guess is that Apple is going to move from Lithiom-ion batteries to Silver-Zinc models.

Silver Zinc batteries from a California company called ZPower fit the bill pretty well. According to their FAQ:

ZPower has partnered with one of the top global manufacturers of notebook computers to roll out a laptop with a silver-zinc battery option in early 2009 [Macworld-ish?]. The notebook will have the capability to work with either silver-zinc or lithium-ion batteries (i.e. it will be dual chemistry enabled). ZPower is the first company to launch a rechargeable, silver-zinc battery in the mobile electronics market.

Secret top tier notebook manufacturer? Who likes to keep secrets?

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The case doesn't stop there. To put a battery inside the laptop a few concerns will have to be addressed. First it will have to be safe. ZPower says their batteries are much safer than Lithium:

The ZPower battery contains no lithium and is inherently safe. ZPower batteries are not subject to recent FAA air travel restrictions now placed on lithium-ion batteries.

Why are ZPower batteries safer?
  • ZPower batteries offer an intrinsically safe, lithium-free, water-based chemistry.
  • ZPower batteries have no thermal runaway and are not flammable
  • ZPower batteries have passed wide range of safety tests including:
    • Heating
    • Temperature Cycling
    • Short Circuit
    • Abnormal Charge (overcharge)
    • Forced Discharge (reverse charge)
    • Impact
    • Crush
    • Drop
    • Nail Penetration
  • ZPower batteries are not restricted by Li-ion battery regulations for in-flight use.

Silver-Zinc isn't a new, untested technology either. It has been used by NASA and Aircraft industries for years.

It was the power source in all of the Apollo spacecraft: the Saturn launch vehicles, command module re-entry batteries, the lunar module and the lunar rover. (The Apollo Service Module used fuel cells as a primary power source.)

Also, to have an entirely internal battery, they'd need to be able to take many more charges than the current Lithium batteries which putter out in one to three years. I've had to replace my MacBook Pro Battery after two years of use because the charge would only last a few minutes. Luckily, Silver-Zinc starts to degrade in charge only after five years of use. Nice!

They also charge faster - at least in the area that matters most:

A laptop computer battery using ZPower cells can charge in 5 hours. The ZPower battery charges at a constant rate throughout the complete charge cycle. In contrast, lithium-ion batteries decelerate to a slower rate towards the last 20-30% of a charge cycle. As a result, ZPower batteries charge faster than lithium-ion batteries from 70% to 100% --which is where most consumers focus their charging activity.

ZPower also fits into Apple's Green initiatives:

  • ZPower was awarded the AlwaysOn GoingGreen 100 Award in 2007 for energy storage. The company was honored because 95% of the key elements in ZPower batteries can be recycled and reused. ZPower is also taking a leading role in providing financial incentives to consumers who recycle.
  • The primary materials of ZPower batteries (i.e. silver and zinc) are fully recyclable. That means that the materials derived from recycling process are of the same quality as the materials that went into the initial creation of the battery. This reduces the need to mine for new materials and minimizes the removal of silver and zinc from the earth’s crust.
  • In contrast, the primary elements of traditional lithium-ion batteries are downcycled and cannot be reused. The downcycling process reduces the original battery into raw materials of lower quality which can’t be reused for battery production. Additional lithium must be obtained before another battery can be produced.
  • The silver recycling process already exists. Refiners perfected the processes over centuries for jewelry, tableware, photographic film, and electronics. Additionally, silver obtained from scrap makes up over 30% of the silver that is needed each year to satisfy world demand.
  • ZPower is the first rechargeable battery company in the portable electronic segment to offer financial incentives to consumers who recycle. ZPower will make it easy for consumers to return their used batteries to ZPower in exchange for a credit towards the purchase of a new silver-zinc battery. This innovative approach to battery recycling for mobile electronics will be introduced in 2009 when ZPower batteries are launched with a leading notebook computer manufacturer.

Silver-Zinc batteries also have a higher power density by a factor of two. You can get twice the storage capacity in the same space or the same storage in half the space. Apple would probably split the difference, getting more power out of a smaller-sized battery.

The downside is that these batteries cost much more than Lithium Ion to make. As part of the most expensive Apple laptop however, that cost could be easier to absorb, and with all of the listed benefits, easily justified. As production is ramped up, the economics of scale will make them more reasonably priced.

The new battery technology could also be the reason that Apple had to wait on the release of the 17-inch Unibody MacBook Pro. ZPower had originally expected to release its technology in 2008 but it just slipped to early 2009 for unknown technical reasons.

We have two more days until we find out. Don't forget to check my Macworld liveblog here.

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