IBM’s Lithium-Air Battery Project

IBM is working on a lithium-air battery that they believe has enormous potential to slash the weight and cost of battery packs.   In an Aol Energy blog posting, IBM’s Winfried Wilcke says: “Improvements to the chemistry and manufacturing methods of Lithium-ion cells have led to reliable improvements in price and performance by about 6 to 8 percent per year.” But he adds:  “…. the cost to outfit an EV with a battery pack-estimated today to add $10,000 to $15,000 to the price of Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf-will fall by only half by 2020”.   Wilcke feels this is not fast enough to make EVs go mainstream.

Wilcke is the Principle Investigator of the IBM Battery 500 Project.  Scientists theorized that combining lithium with oxygen could create a battery with unprecedented energy storage potential. According to the posting:

A key feature of this approach is that the reaction “breathes” air, taking in oxygen when it discharges and releasing oxygen while recharging. Because the battery “borrows” these molecules from the air, fewer raw materials-and less weight-needs be built into the device. This “Lithium-air” approach shows enormous theoretical potential to slash the weight and cost of battery packs. In 2009, IBM took a very long-term bet to see if it could realize this theoretical promise. The resulting project, dubbed Battery 500, aims to produce batteries able to propel an EV 500 miles on a single charge, roughly matching the range of a tank of gas.

Three years in, the results are tantalizing. Lithium-air shows the potential to store up to ten times the energy per weight of today’s commercial Lithium-ion batteries, opening the door to potentially game-changing applications. For instance, if a current EV can hold 100 miles worth of charge, a bank of Lithium-air cells promise to boost that capacity to 500 miles at similar weight.

To be sure, the scientific challenges facing the project remain daunting. After three years of work, the basic operation of rechargeable Lithium-air chemistry has been exhaustively characterized, showing the way ahead. But before Lithium-air cells can move from the laboratory to the car show room, researchers still must improve the cells’ long-term cyclability, speed-up the time needed to charge and discharge, and further drive down costs.

Still, the researchers have been knocking off these sorts of challenges so steadily that they hope to have a working a large-scale prototype within the next two years. Automotive commercialization would be further out, sometime between 2020 and 2030.

If this battery is what is needed to make the EV go mainstream, the forecast of battery commercialization of somewhere around 2020 and 2030 must be discouraging to the advocates that want to replace fossil fuels.


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