Are Lithium Air Batteries the Future of Electric Vehicles?

With the first wave of plug-in cars set to hit the market later this year, there is still uncertainty as to whether consumers will balk at price tag and range limitations of early-model electric vehicles. Both of these drawbacks can be traced to the shortcomings of the current generation of lithium ion batteries, which have made huge strides in the last decade but are still perceived to not meet the needs of some drivers.

But what if lithium batteries could be lighter, cheaper and at least five times more powerful than those that will power cars like the Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, or Nissan Leaf?

Argonne Laboratories says that lithium air batteries could be all of these things and more, and it’s using an $8.8 million government grant to develop them.

A Battery That Breathes, But Don’t Hold Your Breath

A regular lithium ion battery works by moving ions from a carbon anode through an electrolyte (usually lithium salts) to a solid metal oxide cathode. Lithium air batteries use a lithium anode and a porous carbon cathode, allowing the lithium ions to move freely through an unlimited supply of oxygen. The difference, in layman’s terms, is that a lithium air battery “breathes,” allowing its capacity to be limited only by how much lithium is contained in its the anode. This results in a battery that is smaller, lighter, and hopefully cheaper. It could also mean electric vehicles that are more powerful, carrying ranges of 500 miles or more.

Lithium Air Graphic

As a technology, lithium air is still in its infancy, but clean-tech start-ups, universities and carmakers all over the world are racing to figure out whether it is indeed the future electric mobility. Most experts say that the battery is at least a decade away (possibly two,) and there are several major hurdles to bringing down costs and ensuring that the technology will hold up to real world challenges.

The federal government is very bullish on future battery technologies like lithium air, and recently awarded an additional $34 million to advanced research on auto batteries.

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  • Eric

    sounds great but I’m not waiting…Next year I plugging in and shunning the pump! I just hope manufacturers make swapping batteries out for upgrades a simple process.

  • CBDunkerson

    A 500 mile all-electric range would be great… but really if they could just make a Volt or Karma style ‘electric with gas backup’ with 80 or 100 mile electric range (as opposed to the current 40 / 50) and the backup gasoline engine that’d be fine by me. With that kind of configuration I could leave the gas tank EMPTY except for the handful of times a year I drive more than 60 miles in a day. The technology obviously exists now… as can be seen from the 100 mile electric Leaf or the 225 mile electric Tesla Roadster. Unfortunately, NONE of the cars coming out seem to have this ‘enough electric range to leave the gas tank empty 95% of the time’ mentality… they all assume you’ll be driving around with gas in the tank all the time and just use it less than currently.

  • 4r4nd0mninj4

    If you are going to drive around with a near-empty tank you may as well take the whole range-extender and drop it on a trailer. That way you just have to hook it up when you need it and you are not carrying around extra weight. I have seen a few of these in the works on various sites, but it would be nice to just rent one from say Budget or U-Haul for when ever you need more than 80-100mile range. The nice thing about so many EV’s and PHEV’s coming out is that there is something for just about everyone, and with firmware, and battery upgrades, the car you buy today can only get better the longer you own it.

  • Samie

    The first time I heard of this was from Bruce (The Great) a few years ago on this site. Good idea as long as we don’t get into the nightmares of patent hogging like the NiMh battery technology from the EV past.

    It should be a no brainier but as with anything and everything technological, someone will always try to gobble up most of the Li air battery patents. Corporate Entities, Universities, Politicians, and Bureaucrats need to balance rewarding those who take risk in developing new battery technologies with the real threat of those who are always wanting to deliberately control technology and its distribution.

  • mls21

    CBDunkerson your comment about the Volt got me thinking about something I hadn’t come across before. Perhaps it has been raised already on this site, but just in case: what if you are a person who buys the Volt and drives it almost exclusively around town on short hops (electric motor only) and then charges it up at night? If you were to leave gasoline in the tank for an extended period of time is there a way to force the car to run the gas motor to make sure the gas doesn’t go bad in your tank?

    Sorry to raise this question about the Volt in an article about the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is awesome 🙂

  • Anonymous

    sounds like this would need air supply which results in some sort of emission?

  • oldevguy

    The Volt is programed to start the ICE on a regular bases to keep the gaskets in good shape and insure the engines many systems stay healthy.
    That is why I’m going for the Leaf. Why carry all that weight, engine, transmission, and gas tank, around when you really don’t want to use them.

  • caffeinekid

    Are all of these government grants being made from real money, or are they the product of unicorn dust like the rest of the $13trillion in US insolvency?

    I am not sure that any of these technologies are of any use if so many people are broke and have such limited employment prospects as they are pitted against a hungry 3rd world. What ever happened to Ford’s vision?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Its definitely the unicorn dust you speak of, however, there at least might be a payoff with these technologies:
    Don’t you think that broke people might be better off if their cost of living was less impacted by those who control oil prices?

  • M.O.R.T.

    It is very little that will give the government, this is something which would have to invest hundreds of millions, and not just in America, if not in the whole world!…