IBM Developing Lithium-Air Batteries that Can Power a Car for 500 Miles on Single Charge

By Alexandra Burlacu | Apr 20, 2012 03:05 PM EDT

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If all goes well for IBM, we could see an electric car that can go for 500 miles on a single charge sometime in the next decade. In an effort to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, IBM is working on developing lithium-air battery technology that could put an end to range anxiety.

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"Certainly, if it is successful, we stand to make some money," Winfried Wickle, IBM's principal investigator of the Battery 500 Project told Future of Tech. According to Wickle, such a battery could reduce reliance on oil, which is what triggered him to start this project in the first place.

There are several electric vehicles available today, but most of them can run for 150 miles or less on a full charge. Range anxiety, i.e. the fear of running out of power in the middle of the road, is a major barrier to adopting the technology. Wickle and his colleagues believe that a car capable of running 500 miles or more on a single charge could put such anxieties to rest and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.

Lithium-Air Battery

Lithium-ion batteries powering today's electric vehicles rely on heavy metal oxides to drive the chemical reactions that produce electricity. Meanwhile, lithium-air batteries breathe in oxygen from the air, which makes them lighter and more energy dense. The oxygen combines with lithium ions, driving a chemical reaction that generates electricity and produces lithium peroxide. The reaction is reversed when the battery is recharged, sending the oxygen back into the air. IBM has been working on this project since 2009.

On Friday, April 20, IBM has announced partnerships with Asahi Kasei and Central Glass, two materials science companies with decades of materials innovation experience. IBM's new partners can help tackle many engineering challenges in the Battery 500 Project to create a practical battery for the car.

"These new partners share our vision of electric cars being critical components of building a cleaner, better world, which is far less dependent on oil," said Wickle in the press release. "Their compatible experience, knowledge and commitment to bold innovation in electric vehicle battery technology can help us transfer this research from the lab onto the road."

Still Many Problems to Solve

According to Wickle, there is a long way to go before lithium-air-powered cars reach the showroom, as there are still many engineering and materials science challenges to overcome. "So I do not expect that one can see cars in the showroom powered by lithium-air before sometime, maybe, in the middle of next decade," said Wickle, as cited by Future of Tech.

Wickle reckoned that one of the challenges was the belief that lithium-air batteries are rechargeable, but that turned out to be false. "What was thought to be rechargeability was in fact confused with destruction of battery." In theory, upon recharge the battery was supposed to release pure oxygen to the air. Instead of the oxygen, however, it was releasing carbon dioxide, the very greenhouse gas that electric vehicles aim to reduce. Scientists then figured out there was a problem with the battery's electrolytes, and started using a different one that works.

That's Where Partners Come In

Central Glass, one of the partners announced on Friday, is a leading electrolyte manufacturer for lithium-ion batteries. Though he did not offer any specific details yet, Wickle did note that together with Central Glass they have identified an electrolyte that "really looks promising." Another challenge in making a practical lithium-air battery is developing a membrane capable of filtering pure, dry oxygen from ambient air. That's where the other announced partner comes in - Asahi Kasei is a Japanese supplier of membranes.

According to Wickle, IBM is not looking to get into battery manufacturing, but it would make money from licensing fees. If IBM succeeds with this project, Central Glass and Asahi Kasei would benefit as suppliers. "If it succeeds, it will have a major impact on oil consumption and reducing it," added Wickle.

(reported by Alexandra Burlacu, edited by Dave Clark)


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