Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.
“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.
“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.
Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.
Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.
“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”
He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.
“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”
He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.
“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”
Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.
Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.
Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.
“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”
Better Place’s business model is based on the deployment of conventional charging posts in urban areas along with the construction of stations where drivers can swap out their depleted batteries for a fresh ones if they need to take longer trips.
In the end, Mr. Wilcke said, breakthroughs in batteries and electric cars may happen elsewhere.
“What we do in the U.S. doesn’t matter,” he said. “What matters is what China does. The Chinese government has a goal that 50 percent of all new cars sold in China by 2020 will be battery-powered. That is what will change the game.”