Solving Wind Energy’s Storage Problems

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Storage is an invaluable human ability. We store food in places where it won’t rot. We store cherished personal mementos. We store information, in far-reaching digital formats and home file cabinets. And we store energy when we can.

But David Wilkins says, for all our strengths in storing life’s necessities, we are sorely lacking in our ability to store one of our most fundamental forms of energy – electricity – on a large scale. His business, Zinc Air Inc., exists to address that void.

Zinc Air, headquartered in a building on U.S. Highway 2 near Columbia Falls, has brought together an accomplished team of scientists and businessmen who boast the types of resumes that let you know they are serious about what they do.

Together, they are preparing to introduce to the market a grid storage system – a battery – that uses flow battery technology and is capable of storing large amounts of electricity with cost-effective efficiency.

“It’s a proven technology that’s never been brought to market,” Wilkins said.

The company’s focus is wind power, an industry that has been slowed by storage limitations. And with nationwide mandates to considerably increase renewable energy, which is subject to nature’s irregularity, Wilkins sees a vital industry in energy storage. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has emphasized the importance of storage.

“With wind, there’s billions of dollars invested right now but there’s no large-scale storage solutions,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins is president and CEO of Zinc Air, a company that has operated quietly for the past two years, developing its Zinc Redox battery, and is now preparing to make a little bit more noise. Wilkins expects to “have the batteries to customers at the end of the year.”

The company, which Wilkins said is working to secure 15 to 30 patents this year, uses zinc chemistry technology. Zinc is said to have multiple advantages over lithium, including its non-toxic properties and its abundance in the U.S.

“There’s enough zinc in Montana to fuel the country for years to come,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins has been a technology executive in the past and also founded Glacier Stone Supply, a company that mines, manufactures and distributes stone products. Other members of Zinc Air’s management team have similar executive experience, on a national and regional level.

Dr. Ron Brost, who leads the company’s electrochemical development, has been involved in battery and fuel cell development for 18 years. He spent years as chairman of the Ford Motor Company’s fuel cells patent committee and more than a decade as a technical expert for Ford.

Kevin Witt, formerly of Semitool, is the company’s chief technology officer. And Witt isn’t the only ex-Semitool employee who will work for Zinc Air.

“Coincidentally, they have the same type of background that we need,” company advisor Gregory Hayes says about the former Semitool workers. “People say, ‘You have a lot of chemical engineers in Montana?’ Yes we do.”

Zinc Air, a private investor-funded enterprise, currently has 14 full-time employees, not including subcontractors, but both Wilkins and Hayes say that number will grow substantially. Hayes said his company has “a strong bias toward Montana” and would like to keep operations here, noting that “the state government is aware, very aware, of our desires and has been helpful.”

“That’s our interest, to be an employer in Montana,” Hayes said. “We are pretty excited about our development. We’re a rapidly growing company in the Flathead Valley and we’re not just employing fry cooks, we’re employing chemical engineers.”

For more information, go to www.zincairinc.com.

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