Think about a new way to power auxiliary systems

The last time you saw zinc was probably as zinc oxide ointment on the end of a sunburned nose. But zinc can do much more than meets the eye, or the nose for that matter. According to Metallic Power Inc., Carlsbad, Calif., it can even power the auxiliary systems on your trucks. Since 1995, the company has been developing a zinc/air fuel cell to generate electricity for a variety of mobile and stationary jobs that require power levels above about 1kW.

Their vehicle-mounted fuel cell, somewhat like a conventional rechargeable battery, uses chemical reactions to create electricity. This one, however, is designed to generate electricity when zinc combines with oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte to form zinc oxide powder. A separate regeneration/recycling machine forms the other half of the Metallic Power System. Instead of recharging the fuel cell, it converts the zinc oxide back into "fresh" zinc, which can be recombined with the electrolyte to be reused as fuel.

Dr. Jeff Colborn, developer of the system and CEO of Metallic Power, says it's a "closed-loop system, with nothing to add, nothing to discard, and nothing wasted. The completely safe fuel cell has three times the energy efficiency of a gasoline engine, and it reuses its zinc and electrolyte over and over."

If Metallic Power's plans are successful, onboard devices such as computers, televisions, VCRs, microwaves, refrigerators, HV/AC units, etc., could be humming along on zinc/air-produced electricity before the new century hits its second birthday, and the benefits for the trucking industry could be substantial.

For starters, zinc is safer to handle than other alternative fuels like liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, or even gasoline or diesel, and it's plentiful. It's one of the most common elements. What's more, the company adds, the zinc/air fuel cells are much more energy-efficient than traditional batteries, and can remain maintenance-free for up to ten years, even in extreme weather.

Two events at the end of 1999 helped to move the zinc/air fuel cells closer to commercial reality for the trucking industry. In October, Metallic Power announced a partnership with Briggs & Stratton Corp., a major producer of air-cooled gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment, to investigate and develop future power sources using Metallic Power's proprietary technology.

In November, Metallic Power also reported the successful first-phase demonstration of a prototype zinc/air fuel system in a Cushman model utility cart, manufactured by Textron Co. Metallic Power says the fuel cell-powered cart achieved the same ground speed as a lead/acid-battery-powered cart; refueled in just ten minutes compared to an eight-hour recharging cycle; and was able to cover 25% more distance.

Product improvements are expected to cut refueling time to just three to five minutes. The production version of the recycling unit will feature a single, coaxial nozzle/hose configuration similar to today's gasoline and diesel fuel pumps.

"The success of this demonstration means we have met a significant investor milestone and we are on-target for our 2002 product launch," Colborn explained.

The next major phase is a test of approximately 50 customer evaluation units in the fall of this year, with beta test units to follow in late 2001.

While truckers love golf as much as anybody else, the real value of Metallic Power's fuel-cell technology won't be on the fairway - it will be on the highway, where truckers currently spend as much as $4,000 per year per truck idling engines to run auxiliary devices. It is definitely a company and a technology to watch. To follow their progress visit