Introducing an air-breathing battery that could power a breakout electric car

Darn those batteries — they continue to be the bugaboo for both the unplugged, always-on lifestyle and the dream of the mainstream electric car. But if a breakthrough air-breathing battery design, created by none other than IBM, ever makes it out of the lab, the world could one day see an electric car with a whopping 500-mile range — about five times what the current electric cars on the market today are offering.
On Friday IBM is unveiling progress and new partners for its lithium air battery technology, which it started working on back in the Summer of 2009 and which could one day be a commercial product perhaps in the 2020/2030 timeframe (yeah, not real soon). Big Blue says to move its battery research forward it has teamed up with Japanese chemical companies Asahi Kasei and Central Glass.
To put this innovation in perspective, scientists have been working on the lithium air battery for years. It’s considered to be one of the only types of batteries that could get close to the kind of energy density (the amount of energy stored for a set volume) that gasoline has, and so it could be a breakthrough for the electric car specifically. Electric cars need to have batteries that are as lightweight as possible — extra weight just drains the battery faster, and batteries that are smaller and use less materials can also be lower in cost.
IBM says its lithium air battery could have an energy density of 1,000 watt hours per kilogram, which is more than double the energy density of some of the most cutting edge lithium ion batteries out there being made by Envia. It’s also five to ten times more energy dense than the basic lithium ion batteries on the market.

Now let’s get back to battery 101 basics. A battery is made up of an anode and a cathode and electrolyte in between. For a lithium ion battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way.
For IBM’s lithium air battery, the anode is made of metallic lithium, and the cathode is essentially a meeting ground for oxygen from the air and lithium ions that have come across the electrolyte from the anode. The electrolyte is made up of an organic liquid.
The battery can have such a high energy density partly because you’re doing away with the cathode — and pulling in ambient air — so it can be light weight as well as low cost. The battery would pull in and use oxygen in a similar way to how an internal combustion engine draws in oxygen.
Of course, this research is essentially being produced in a lab setting right now, so whether or not it will make it into a commercial battery, remains to be seen. IBM’s Principle Investigator Winfried Wilcke told me in an interview this week that the project is his “Mt. Everest” — ie. very difficult to climb — and, he says, they’ve just left Base Camp.
I know what you’re thinking next: IBM isn’t a battery maker. And Wilcke tells me that IBM has no plans to manufacture the battery. But with IBM’s partners, the group could one day license the technology to a battery manufacturer (much the way 3M would license its battery tech). Asahi Kasei is developing the membrane technology for the battery and Central Glass is developing a new kind of electrolyte for the battery.
IBM is more commonly associated with computer modelling, and IBM used sophisticated computer models on its Blue Gene/P supercomputers to study the simulations of the interactions for the electrolyte. IBM also has a history in nanotech, which led to the development of nanostructures.
One of the more important aspects of the lithium air technology is the membranes and nanostructures that can keep water out and let oxygen in to the battery. Why? Lithium metal is highly flammable and reacts with water. Search lithium and water on YouTube to see some of the explosive videos.

Images, video courtesy of IBM Research.