While improving the technology depends on chemical processes that take longer to perfect than the systems that brought cheap electronics, finding a solution to the shortcomings of batteries has the potential to revolutionize everything from transportation to hand-held gadgets.
“We picked the path with the biggest risks and the biggest rewards,” Spike Narayan, science and technology director at IBM Research in San Jose, California, said in an interview. “This is a moonshot.”
“Lithium-ion has been around for decades, and if there was an obvious cost reduction by scaling up we would have seen it by now,” Chew said in an interview from New York. “It’s highly likely the common battery in the next generation of electric vehicles won’t be lithium-ion.”
Engineers handle the heat of lithium-ion batteries with cooling systems and safety shut-off systems, as Tesla Motors has done in its vehicles. The bigger problem is that the power density in the current generation of batteries is too low.
For IBM, its effort to build a better battery began in 2009 at an annual meeting it hosts with government agencies and engineers. The “lithium-air” concept relies on the electricity released when the metal reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere. If it works on a commercial scale, it would provide as much energy per weight of the battery as a gallon of gasoline in as little as five years, Narayan said.
The first step was for scientists to demonstrate the technology can store and release power through 10 charges. Now they’re pushing the unit to work over hundreds of cycles, and build a prototype. That would require further improvements in the materials used for the cathodes, anodes and electrolytes, which form the guts of batteries, Narayan said.
“We could see a radical advance if our prototype excites a manufacturer with a compatible technology,” Narayan says. “We’ll have a prototype ready next year, and then with our partners we’ll look at the engineering timeline. Five to 10 years is a reasonable time to commercialization.”
IBM is not alone. Researchers at universities, government laboratories and auto companies are also vying to produce the next-generation battery.
Toyota and BMW AG on Jan. 24 announced plans for lithium-air batteries. Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a product using carbon nanotubes replacing lithium-ion. Seeo, a start-up backed by billionaire Vinod Khosla, is building lithium-ion units that use a lighter, dry electrolyte instead of liquid.
A research team at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology are working on a Lithium Air UltraBattery while the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Michigan College of Engineering are also working on Lithium Air Batteries.
Tesla says the technology is good enough for now. It already boasts the longest range of any all-electric vehicle in production. “We can already achieve 300 miles,” Christina Ra, a spokeswoman for Silicon Valley’s only carmaker. “This is sufficient for the majority of the market.”
Tesla acknowledges the shortcomings of electric vehicles for longer trips, and said that few of their customers are ordering the low-cost, small battery packs.
“I think for a long distance trip right now, depending upon where you are in the country, a little bit of extra planning is needed,” Chairman Elon Musk said yesterday on a conference call with investors. “More people are ordering the larger battery pack than we thought.”