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IBM’s New Lithium-Air Battery Could Give EVs A 500 Mile Range

Tesla Roadster

One of the biggest reasons people don’t buy an electric vehicle (EV) is range anxiety. That is, people worry that an EV will run out of charge before it gets them to their destination. And despite huge improvements in EV battery capacity in recent years, engineers are still unsure how to get more than 100 miles out of a standard electric car – until now.

Researchers at IBM are developing a new kind of battery for electric cars, known as a lithium-air cell, that has a theoretical density 1000 times greater than the current lithium-ion type. And unlike lithium-ion cells, lithium-air cells conduct their charge using air rather than metal. Energy flow is thus created when air reacts with lithium ions and a carbon matrix.

The higher densities could give EVs a driving range of up to 500 miles, thus making them “range-competitive” with their petroleum-powered counterparts. They are also one fifth the size of regular EV batteries and could last five times as long.

Although on paper the new lithium-air cell looks promising, researchers are still dealing with a few nagging problems.

In particular, researchers found that the oxygen reacts both with the carbon electrode and the electrolytic solvent (which is the conducting solution carrying the lithium ions between electrodes). When this reaction occurs while the car is in use, the electrolyte will eventually be depleted. In the long-term, this reduces the battery’s lifespan drastically.

However, the IBM researchers are searching for alternative electrolytes and are confident they can come up with a fully functioning prototype by 2013. If all goes well, commercial production could commence in 2020.

Do you think the new lithium-air cell battery (if successfully developed) would encourage more consumers to purchase electric vehicles? Are there others things EV manufacturers should look at to make their cars more enticing for consumers?

Image CC licensed by Mike Weston: All-electric Tesla Roadster

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