One of the main challenges faced by the Electric Vehicle (EV) industry is so-called “range anxiety.” Current lithium-ion batteries will provide a range of about 100 miles (161 km), limiting the commercial adoption of EVs in a market accustomed to the range and supporting infrastructure of gasoline-powered vehicles. If existing lithium-ion batteries were scaled up to match the range capacity of gas-powered vehicles, they would be unfeasibly large and heavy. Lithium-air batteries, which have the potential to provide energy densities that rivals traditional gasoline-powered engines, are seen as a possible solution. IBM has been researching such batteries and recently announced that it's bringing two companies with experience in electric vehicle materials onboard to aid in their development.
Unlike their lithium-ion counterparts, which use heavy metal-oxide cathodes and are self contained with an oxidizer stored internally, IBM’s lithium-air batteries provide a higher energy density through the use of lighter cathodes and using oxygen drawn from the air. The oxygen reacts with lithium ions during discharge to form lithium peroxide on a carbon matrix. When it recharges, the oxygen goes back to the atmosphere and the lithium goes back to the anode.
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Like efforts at places such as MIT, IBM has been working on lithium-ion battery technology for some time, creating the Battery 500 Project in 2009 with the aim of developing a lithium-air battery technology that could power an average vehicle for about 500 miles (805 km) on a single charge. Having successfully demonstrated the fundamental chemistry of the charge-and-recharge process for lithium-air batteries, the company has recently enlisted the help of two Japanese companies to help put the technology on the road.
IBM has teamed up with Asahi Kasei and Central Glass, two companies with a history of electric vehicle materials development. Chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei brings in its expertise in membrane technology, while electrolyte manufacturer Central Glass’s mission is to improve the performance of lithium-air batteries with a new class of electrolytes and additives.
However, you’ll have to be patient if you want to get your hands on a long-range EV powered with lithium-air batteries. IBM says we won’t see these being sold in a showroom this decade, but if the science and engineering hurdles are cleared, they could be on the streets between 2020 and 2030.
IBM takes us through the technology in the video below.