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Zinc Air Fuel Cell challenges solar battery systems

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Zinc Air Fuel Cell challenges solar battery systems

This week we interview Rolf Papsdorf, CEO of Zolair, a Vancouver headquartered company. Mr. Papsdorf spent over 40 years in South Africa. The company spent the past 14 years developing Zinc Air Fuel Cell technology.

This patented technology is now ready for the electrification of rural areas around the world. The company is making waves with their Zinc Air Fuel Cell technology which is claimed to be more powerful and reliable than the current solar battery systems on the market.

Our team at Sinovoltaics thought it’s interesting to learn more about this technology! This interview was conducted by Dricus.


Zolair: Micro Energy Supplier

Having worked in the solar energy industry for many years, we mostly follow companies that specialize in solar energy technology and use these technologies to try solve our current energy crises and electrify the part of the world that still lacks electricity.

However when reading about your company’s technology, it’s clear that your approach only relies for a small part on solar energy and is mainly built around the Zinc Air Fuell Cell technology with replaceable cartridges. Can you explain more about this technology and its advantages?

Zolair is a Micro Energy Supplier: it supplies constant, reliable power to its end consumers. The energy is produced with the Zinc Air Fuel Cell cell. Our most popular product is the Pila-1. This model supplies 4,000 Watt Hrs and lasts on average 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the user’s consumption.

Each Pila system is connected through the local telecommunication network to a nearby service station. To make sure the user always has sufficient energy, the Zolair Pila unit communicates automatically with a nearby service station and notifies when the Zinc cartridges need replacement. The service agent will then come by to replace the Zinc cartridges. Our customers only pay for the energy, they don’t own the physical Pila-1 unit.

If they start consuming more, we can exchange the current system with a larger model. This exchange is free of charge and will directly give them access to more electricity.

As soon as people have access to energy, they start using more

Zolair Pila-1 - Zinc Air Fuel Cell energy system

Zolair Pila-1 – Zinc Air Fuel Cell energy system

Zinc Air Fuel Cell: Zinc as a fuel

You use Zinc as a fuel. Why Zinc?

Zinc is an abundant element in the earth’s crust. It’s available all over the world: every large country is mining Zinc. Zinc is affordable and has been fairly stable in price over the past 25 years. Zinc is one of the few metals that can be recycled: it can be won from Zinc Oxide.

In Africa we sent the Zinc Oxide back to the mines where it’s converted back to Zinc. Final result is Zero Waste. Another popular application of Zinc Oxide is the usage in the fertilizer industry.

How can we empower people to slowly reach a higher standard of living? How can we help them?

Zolair Pila-1 - Zinc Air Fuel Cell - Cartridges

Zolair Pila-1 – Zinc Air Fuel Cell – Cartridges

How are your systems refueled?

When Zolair enters a country, multiple Service Center are set up. These Service Centers can function as franchises. When the system of a nearby user reaches 80% discharge, the service station is automatically notified and the Zinc cartridges are swapped free of charge. The Service Centers are able to refill the Zinc cartridges and also collect the Zinc Oxide for recycling. Each service center is a business by itself and creates employment.

Pay as you go energy

How are the consumers in developing countries paying for this system?


Our systems are financed by Micro Credit Institutes (MCI’s). The end user pays a small introduction fee, and then starts to pay for the energy they consume. ‘Pay as you Go Energy’ is of course nothing new: here in the Western world I also don’t need to own the power stations! Similar to that, our customers don’t own the systems, and solely pay for the energy they use. When they start consuming more, we can supply them with a larger model, exchange it free of charge and give them access to more electricity.

We’re not selling Fuel Cells, we’re simply selling the energy that our users are using.

ZOLAIR Pila1 remotely buy energy credits

Pay as you go system: the Zolair units get activated by a mobile phone from anywhere in the world and can therefore be used by sponsors to pay for energy to a deserving household.

Zinc Air Fuel Cell vs Solar battery systems

Currently there are several companies and NGOs selling small solar battery systems in the developing world. Isn’t solar energy technology a better way to power rural areas?

The major disadvantage of the small solar battery systems is that it only provides energy for some lights and perhaps a radio. People in rural areas have a tiny budget. When they start spending their money on a small solar battery system, they’re locked in for years and they won’t get access to anything else. The only ones helped here are the companies that sell these systems..

There are large micro financed companies that are taking money from the poorest of the poor for their own financial gains. It’s a big ripoff. To give you an example:

there’s a large company selling solar battery systems. They demand USD 35 deposit, which covers their initial cost of equipment that they supply. So without any risk, they’re making USD 0.45 per day. At the end of the day, they charge USD 180 for equipment which you can buy in the shop for USD 35.

The problem with small solar battery systems is: people don’t just want to charge their phones, they want to improve their overall quality of life and earn a disposable income. Enhancing people’s lifestyle is not done by selling a product that A) won’t last for a long time in any case, and B) is inferior to meet their real energy needs.

Zolair’s solution is offering the service of constant, reliable energy supply. People only pay for the energy they use, and they get access to as much enegy they need.

End users don’t care if they own the power stations, they want reliable energy supply.

Zolair - Service Center

Zolair – Service Center for the replacement of Zinc cartridges


Don’t you believe that a small, central solar energy system with micro grid is a good solution to power a village?

Yes it’s a possibility, and I’ve seen several of these systems in Southern Africa. Unfortunately many of these fail. A difficult question to answer is: how do I know how much each end-user really needs? In the first place it’s very hard to predict how to size such a system.

From my experience I know that as soon as people have access to energy, they will start using more. They’ll start with lights, a radio, and soon will need a fridge, TV, computer and more. Therefore a fixed size system will not meet their demands in the long term.

Zolair supplies the energy they consume. If the end-user starts using more, we’ll supply them with a larger unit, safely stored inside their home. Wireless systems are key in rural areas: a major disadvantage of central solar energy systems with micro grids is the theft of copper wiring and the mis-use of illegal energy taps. These are both very common in rural areas and can not be underestimated.

Zolair Pila1 - Electricity used for a sewing business

Zolair Pila1 – Electricity used for a sewing business

Energy to create a disposable income

How can your systems provide a disposable income to its users?

Our system will provide the end user with as much energy they need. Instead of being limited by a system that only provides them with light and perhaps a radio, there’s enough energy available to run a small business.

Each end user is different and can be sophisticated. In fact each system automatically sends information on the consumer’s energy usage profile, which helps us to anticipate on a user’s future energy consumption, and provide them with more energy when they need it.

There’s 85% or more unemployment in rural areas of Africa, and we need to create an opportunity that these people can use the energy to create income. With the energy from our systems, people can use sewing machines, computers, make copies, print something, open a shop for electric haircutting or own a fridge, so they can buy an entire chicken and eat it over 3 days. There are so many advantages to this.

Zolair: creating disposable income

Zolair: creating disposable income


Zinc Air Fuel Cell and solar energy

You also use small solar modules that connect with the Zolair Pila systems. What do you use the solar modules for?

Besides the Zinc Air Fuel Cells, each Zolair Pila system contains a small battery. This battery ensures that the internal electronics of the Pila system are always working. These electronics are important as each system is wirelessly communicating with the Service Center, and automatically sends out a notification when the Zinc cartridges need to be swapped. However for the main source of power the system relies on on the Zinc Air Fuell Cell.

The larger solar panels (100W) are used in conjunction with Zolair’s fuel cells as well. In that case the deep cycle battery is charged with the solar panels, which increases reliability and more cost effective energy.

Thank you for this interview Rolf! It’s great to see how a CEO with his heart in the right place is changing the way people receive their energy in the developing world.


Thank you very much, too!

Visit Zolair Energy here:

Comment Section

11 thoughts on “Zinc Air Fuel Cell challenges solar battery systems

By Ranjan Dias Jayasinha on 17 December 2015

I live in SriLanka. Also I have On Grid Solar system from Kaco 2 X 4 Kw Inverters connected 28 Solar World PV Modules. Also 6 years ago I fixed an Off Grid System with Deep Cycle Battery. How can I buy Zink Air Fuel cell.

By Arnold V. on 17 December 2015

Sounds like the right approach to power communities cut off the grid. Have these systems already been installed somewhere?

By Dricus on 17 December 2015

@Ranjan Not sure if the company is already active in Sri Lanka. I would get in touch with Zolair directly at

@Arnold the systems were tested for years in South Africa. Right now the company is setting up in South East Asia, starting with Thailand and Cambodia

By M. Giang on 17 December 2015

Replacing the zinc cartridges seems to be fairly easy. However who’s sending the cartridges to the users? It requires an established network and supply chain in remote areas. To me this seems their main challenge..

By Ranbir on 17 December 2015

Fully agree, solar battery systems can turn into an obstacle if large part of income is spent on the complete system and only provides for small amount of electricity. It’s not the fault of micro credit’s the companies that offer these limiting systems

By Jackson Wallace on 19 December 2015

I think you’re missing the point(s). It used to be that ONLY those people too poor to grid-connect even considered alternative power.
1……a stand-alone can be started on a very small scale and added-to as funds become available.
2…..permits (many!) other alternatives to be incorporated. eg. charging a deep-cycle battery from the car-engine driving to and from work/shops/etc. ~ and just plugging it into a lead in the garage.
3…..also allows other uses. eg. running a Dc circuit around the house and using some of the many Dc- appliances directly from the batteries* ~ which can save quite a lot of power otherwise lost in conversion.
* I currently run a small TV on Dc, and it consumes 8 watts (yep! EIGHT!), though it’d need ANOTHER 17 watts to power it on Ac via an inverter.
4……It currently costs me about 2.5 kwh of solar power-production simply to pay for the ‘Service-to-property’ charge.
My first ‘system’ ~ on a good day ~ produced about 600 watts, and I managed quite well, with a few adjustments in consumption and practices.
5…… these days my year-round consumption averages about 2.5 kwh per day (both my own and power=retailer records) and don’t go without anything that matters to me.
6……At today’s prices a useful 7kw. stand-alone system can be (self) installed for about $Au6000 and should last up to about eight years before the battery-bank would require replacement. (a friend recently replaced top-shelf batteries she’d bought 2nd-hand 32 (yep! thirty-two!) years ago from the old SEC.
Not only is stand-alone solar-power much cheaper than ANY ‘connected’ system, but the sheer independence is beyond price.

By Rolf Papsdorf on 21 December 2015

You are right, stand alone systems, wireless are the future for micro energy. That is what we do. However our end users do not need to come up with large amounts of money to buy their own systems. Our target market is the BOP market that earns $ 2 or less per day. Otherwise good article response from you.

By Dricus on 17 December 2015

@M. Giang True, it requires setting up Service Stations in a selected community. Regardless the technology installed, every system needs at some point advise, maintenance, expansion etc. Such service stations are therefore very much needed, and will also offer employment and an established network for other NGOs.. To me it sounds like some serious work but the right approach..

By Brad Bedford on 18 December 2015

@Ranbir Not the fault of micro credit organizations?? Isn’t it their task to properly select the projects that will benefit the end-users? Or they only look at risk/profitability?

By Jackson Wallace on 19 December 2015

I’ve been involved in alternative energy since I put up my first (2nd-hand) panels in 1981, and fail to see ANY benefit in these ‘newer’ systems over the (very cheap these days) basic panel/lead-acid battery systems which have proven themselves over time.
There appears to be NO benefit in instituting a ‘new’ (and highly expensive!) ersatz grid-system which contains ALL the inherent faults of the current grid-system and NONE of the benefits (cost-effectiveness, independence, etc.) of a very simple/efficient stand-alone system.
If there are any relevant arguments I’d be most interested in hearing them.

By Jackson Wallace on 19 December 2015

ps. You’re welcome to publish my email address for an exchange of ideas with other interested parties.:-

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Dricus is Managing Director at Sinovoltaics Group “Your Solar Supply Network”, a solar technology company specialized in the Supply Chain Management and Quality Assurance of solar energy components.Dricus is based in Hong Kong and has been working in the PV industry in China for the past 9 years. Connect with Dricus on LinkedIn