Physicist Winfried Wilcke working at IBM’s Almaden laboratories, based in San Jose, California in a report by Duncan Graham-Rowe in NewScientist allows that IBM’s Battery 500 project to find an air battery solution for electric vehicles (EVs), has found a starting solution.

The assertion now is IBM believes it has solved a fundamental problem that may lead to the creation of a rechargeable battery with a 500-mile (800-kilometre) range – letting EVs potentially compete with most petroleum fueled engines.  That would solve the major concern with owning an electric vehicle (EV), the range anxiety – a driver’s estimation that the battery charge will not get the vehicle to the destination on the charge.

As the technology sits today the best offerings of EVs use lithium-ion batteries, which still occupying a large volume and rarely provide 100 miles (160 kilometers) of driving before they’re discharged.

IBM is well into their Battery 500 Lithium/Air Battery project.  The original idea is to come up with and electrical storage solution as good as gasoline, runs out 500 miles and is fully electric with size weight and pricing comparable to a gasoline internal combustion drive.

A lithium-air cell has more potential because it has theoretical energy densities more than 1000 times greater than conventional lithium-ion battery chemistry, setting up an energy density comparable to gasoline.  Lithium-air cells use carbon, instead of metal oxides for the positive electrode, which is lighter and reacts with oxygen from the air around it to produce an electrical current.

The problem has been chemical instabilities limiting the recharging cycles, making lithium-air impractical for use in cars.

Wilcke said, “We now have one which looks very promising.”  No disclosure is being made about what material it is but he says that several research prototypes have already been demonstrated.

To get to this point Wilcke studied the underlying electrochemistry of lithium-air cells using a form of mass spectrometry. What he learned was that oxygen is reacting not just with the carbon electrode, as it was known to, but also with the electrolytic solvent – the conducting solution that carries the lithium ions between the positive and negative electrodes.  When the electrolyte reacts with the oxygen as the battery is used it will eventually be depleted.

Wilcke teamed up with colleague Alessandro Curioni at IBM’s Zurich research labs in Switzerland.  Curioni explains they used a Blue Gene supercomputer to run extremely detailed models of the reactions to look for alternative electrolytes. This included a form of atomistic modeling right down to the quantum mechanics of the components.

The pair’s work is part of the Battery 500 project, where IBM is leading a coalition involving four US national laboratories and commercial partners, with the hope to have a full-scale prototype ready by 2013, with commercial batteries to follow by around 2020.

Graham-Rowe found Phil Bartlett, head of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, UK for his counter point who offers, “Lithium in water spontaneously catches fire.”

But if the IBM lead consortium has come up with an anode and cathode that works with the oxygen in an electrolyte that doesn’t react with the oxygen they would have solved a major obstacle with lithium-air batteries.  Keeping the H2O molecules out would be a much less challenging matter.

So we’re bursting with questions!  Have the Battery 500 folks got both of the electrode materials sorted out and a selection of electrolytes?  Is the oxygen transport inbound handling the nitrogen, water vapor and trace gasses or are the barriers at the electrodes and electrolytes?  Perhaps both methods are under study?  The questions just take off from there.

This is good news and congratulations are in order for the Battery 500 team people and Mr. Graham-Rowe for finding the news and getting it out.


4 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on January 10, 2012 7:32 AM

    It is a long way from start to finish when you are talking about battery development. The eestor people will tell you that just because it is theoretically possible – that does not mean you can overcome the engineering challenges and develope a product that will function over time in an automotive environment. And, do so at a price competitive level.

  2. Jim Takchess on January 10, 2012 2:14 PM

    The bursting in flames when exposed to moisture is an issue as well.

    We are making progress on a number of battery fronts. It will be interesting to see where we may be in 2020.

  3. Y_Po on January 11, 2012 1:21 AM

    Matt Musson, EEStor is theoretically impossible

  4. DAPP on January 11, 2012 7:04 AM

    EEStor is a scam

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