The perfect car battery will have to balance many different factors, it’s powerful, has endurance, isn’t too expensive and never, ever explodes.

For now the lithium air battery is just equations in the notebooks of researchers.

Don Hillebrand, who directs the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory, was quoted at Climatewire saying, “Theoretically, it works on paper.”  Well, that’s a start.  But those equations are really promising.

Should the theories turn out right, lithium air batteries may hold five to 10 times the energy of lithium-ion batteries the first choice for battery packs to power the first wave of EVs.  10 times a lithium ion battery is substantial bait for the effort.

In Climatewire’s quote Hildebrand says, “Lithium-air is where we’re going. You can’t foresee the future, but right now, that’s the place where I think we see the endpoint, the end solution for … the battery. The battery everybody’s looking for.”

The Feds see the potential as well. The Department of Energy grants last month of $34 million for batteries included two lithium air projects with magnesium air, zinc air and even the “all electron” sort of capacitor things that Stanford has been leaking little details about for some weeks.

But the competition is certain with the U.S. and Japan most likely in the lead.  Hildebrand thinks the technology is so young that no lead is established yet “the U.S. and Japan have both recognized the potential, and the U.S. is probably ahead.”  By no means count out the Chinese or Koreans.  The technology and the economic impact are still up for grabs.

The quick battery refresher:  Batteries have terminals, the positive and negative which inside are the anode and a cathode, two materials that exchange ions, in this case – lithium ions.  Most simply, when the ions go one way, the battery charges up; when they go the other way, the battery releases its charge.  Different materials for the anode and cathode, of course, affect this back-and-forth movement. For example, they can discharge faster and speed it up, move a larger number of ions increasing the amperage, or increase or reduce the number of times the battery can repeat the exchange – the recharge cycles.

Lithium Air Battery Activity Flow Chart. Click image for the largest view.

Climatewire also interviewed Jeffrey Chamberlain, head of The Argonne Lab’s Energy Storage Major Initiative and one of the lab’s leading battery chemists who said, “Let’s say we want to electrify the entire fleet of vehicles in the world.  Lithium-ion batteries will get us partway there. But in reality, they’re not quite high enough in energy density or quite low enough in cost.”

Chamberlain called lithium-air a “dream-type battery”: Look at the periodic table, he said, and the only element that carries more energy than lithium for its weight, is hydrogen. If the research theory models are right, lithium-air could get to that energy far better than lithium-ion, approaching the limit of what a battery can do. It could even rival the energy density of petroleum — one of the most energy-packed substances on earth.

That should solve auto manufacturers and consumers’ main issue – range and the time to refill or recharge.  Selling ranges of tens of miles is very different than selling ranges in the hundreds of miles.

The technology difference is in handling oxygen.  Lithium ion batteries simply put, are lithium metal packed with oxygen in compounds such that they stay stable and shuffle the ions and electrons between the anode and cathode.  This is quite heavy.

In contrast the lithium air battery leaves out the mass of metal and attaches lithium to oxygen alone – no compound needed.  On the other pole there would be a porous material that takes in oxygen so that the ions and electrons can take, hold and release charges.

There are problems that demand lots of money, innovation, research, testing and serendipity. First up – a lithium anode matched up with water explodes, so coming up with a waterproofed design is job one.  Isolating O² may not be such a difficult idea either as watching some TV will show a device that prepares O² for inhalation for sale.  Some inventor somewhere has seen this too.

Just getting the O² in and keeping water out are engineering matters.  The puzzle is in the materials that do the other work such as managing the O². These can’t be expensive, costly or precious metals.

Are air batteries close?  Zinc air is on sale now for hearing aids.  The predictions for lithium air range from years to decades.  Guessing on when is up to others, but demand and the payoff for a low cost working design is huge – and huge is an understatement.

As Climatewire points out the time needed for getting to market is also going include lots of testing.

From Climatewire, “Ronn Jamieson, General Motors’ director of global battery systems, explained how every new battery idea has to undergo a vetting process that doesn’t exactly zoom. At any given moment, he said, GM knows of over a hundred ideas for battery chemistries being proposed by universities, laboratories and other companies.

He said GM doesn’t dismiss any of these out of hand, but the first step is to check the science textbooks: “Is it physically possible? Does it defy the laws of physics or thermodynamics or anything else?” If it passes that test, GM does what Argonne and everyone else do: They find one and beat it up.

Some researchers stick a battery cell in an oven for a year, gradually turning up the heat to 113 degrees and then 131 degrees Fahrenheit. Others dunk it in a swimming pool. Others short the battery and see if it blows up. One Department of Energy researcher shot a battery with a nail gun.

These aren’t likely situations for electric cars, but battery developers want to be sure. They say just one high-profile mishap could spell doom for the technology. And so, Jamieson said, GM subjects every new battery technology to a year or more of tests.”

Climatewire overlooks what might be the leading contender.  IBM has organized an effort to work up a lithium air solution. One can be certain universities, private companies, other nations’ resource allocations and lone inventors are hot after the largest energy storage market yet to come.

The update can be summarized – a lot of U.S. Federal money is heading out, lots of other grant money has found a home and more still looking.  Industry worldwide is forming up joint efforts known, unknown and secret.  Privateers are uncountable and have unrestricted imagination available.

It will take a while, just how much capacity lithium air might have is still to be shown, but one day sooner than one might guess, there will be lithium air battery choices.

If lithium air does get to petroleum energy densities with any kind of quick recharge the use of fossil fuels will have a certain decline and electrical power generation a magnificent future.


2 Comments so far

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