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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Battery 500 Project Charged Up over All-Electric Cars

The Battery 500 Project recently held its kickoff meeting at IBM's Almaden Laboratory in San Jose, Calif., where leading scientists, engineers and other experts brainstormed about how to perfect the power source for all-electric automobiles.

As a part of IBM's 2-year-old Big Green Innovations program, the Battery 500 Project aims to boost the range of rechargeable batteries for all-electric cars from less than 100 miles today to as far as 500 miles. The consortium's efforts are being led by the Almaden Lab in collaboration with several U.S. universities and the Department of Energy's national labs.

"Batteries technology has improved, but is still far inferior to gasoline in terms of how much energy they hold," said Spike Narayan, a key IBM researcher. "The energy density—which is the amount of energy a lithium-ion battery stores per unit weight—is really not enough to produce a family-sized sedan with a 300- to 500-mile range."

The remedy, according to IBM, is to harness its nanoscale semiconductor manufacturing techniques to boost the capacity of batteries by increasing their storage density by 10 times over the lithium-ion batteries used today. The Battery 500 Project aims to achieve that goal with a lithium-air battery technology, whose feasibility was demonstrated earlier this year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Lithium-air batteries are unique in that instead of being a sealed system, they couple to atmospheric oxygen—essentially harnessing the oxygen in the air as the cathode of the battery. Since oxygen enters the battery on-demand, it offers an essentially unlimited amount of reactant, metered only by the surface area of its electrodes. IBM believes its nanoscale semiconductor fabrication techniques can increase the surface area of the lithium-air battery's electrodes by at least 100 times, enabling them to meet the goals of the project.

The Battery Project initiative grew from an internal "grand challenge" contest run late last year by IBM's Almaden Lab. The contest's winning entry was the lithium-air battery, the design for which the consortium will attempt to perfect by pooling the resources of about 40 engineers and scientists working on The Battery 500 Project.

IBM also plans to harness its supercomputers to create a simulation so accurate that it will be able to optimize the battery's design parameters, as well as experiment with different catalysts materials, without having to build expensive prototypes. IBM estimates that it will take two years to determine if the goals of The Battery 500 Project can be met with lithium-air battery technology.

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