IBM Lithium-Air Battery Project Looks Promising

Would you believe that eight years from now lithium-air batteries – with energy density nearly equal to gasoline and able to provide five times today’s average EV range – could relegate combustion engines to history?

You’ll believe it when you see it, you say? Well, high hopes have been hyped before, so we can’t say we blame you, but this story making the rounds is based on research by no less than well-regarded IBM researchers on two continents.

“We now have one which looks very promising,” said IBM physicist Winfried Wilcke about an electrolyte material that could lead to a working lithium-air battery prototype by 2013.

Wilcke works at IBM’s Almaden laboratories in San Jose, Calif., and he and Alessandro Curioni at IBM’s Zurich lab in Switzerland used a Blue Gene supercomputer to find an alternative electrolyte for the present close-but-no-cigar lithium-air battery.

But let’s back up a minute: What is lithium air, you ask?

According to New Scientist.com which broke the brief story, lithium-air batteries differ from lithium-ion batteries by using carbon for their positive electrode instead of metal oxides.

Li-Air-cell

The carbon is lighter and reacts with oxygen in the surrounding air to produce electrical current. While their energy density is through the roof, li-air battery cells have proven chemically unstable, thus shortening lifespan when repeated recharging is attempted, so that rules them out at this point.

To attack the problem Wilcke used a form of mass spectrometry to analyze the lithium-air cells’ underlying electrochemistry. In doing so, he discovered that beyond reacting with the carbon electrode, oxygen was also reacting with the electrolytic solvent (that carries the lithium ions between the electrodes).

So, the aforementioned supercomputer was used to run extremely detailed reaction models to find more viable electrolytes. This scientific detective work included a form of atomistic modelling down to the quantum mechanics of the components, said Curioni.

After all this high-tech sleuthing, the researchers reportedly have a material they think could work. They won’t reveal what the electrolyte is but say that several research prototypes have already been demonstrated adding to their positive outlook.

Perhaps the news is also credible because it is coming from IBM, and not a super capacitor maker named EEstor, or some other company with no known track record.

In any event, if they can get a prototype to work, it would solve a major obstacle with lithium-air batteries, said Phil Bartlett, head of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, UK.

Other practical issues to overcome before lithium air is given the commercial green light would include coping with moist air, Bartlett said. Moisture could make for a hazard the pundits at Fox News wished they could have pinned on the Chevy Volt’s LG Chem cells.

“Lithium in water spontaneously catches fire,” Bartlett said.

And we all know fire is not a good thing, right?

So, you ask, what do we really have?

At this point, we have positive reported results from reputable research scientists who think they are onto the right trail.

But what do you think? We’ve already anticipated the usual skepticism and jaded responses, but aside from that, what is a realistic attitude to take?


  • FamilyGuy

    How expensive? How long to recharge?

    I’m always cautiously optimistic about these things. I always hope that they work out.

    With as long as hybrid cars have been around, I could very well replace my family vehicle with another ICE this weekend. The main reason? Money. It’s in my budget. Limited hybrid offerings that seat 6 or more and really none are in my budget.

    I hope that this works out. I hope that I can upwards of 500 miles on a single charge. I hope that I can pull into a refueling station and charge the car in about 5 minutes. I hope that this is offered and affordable to me in 10 years when I have to replace the family car again.

    Good luck!

  • Shines

    A working lithium-air by 2013 does not mean mass produce-able… Even so, we better be sure we have enough Lithium available… Where’s our rare earth mines?
    Oh, and hopefully these air breathing batteries won’t suffocate us – hahaha…;-)

  • Donald Sandri

    There is no doubt in my mind that by 2030 we will be running virtually all electric cars. Energy will be very cheap and we will be booming economically because of all this new technology. As cliche as it might be “necessity is the mother of invention” drives humanity…

  • ron mccurdy

    zinc air perhaps more viable.

  • Joel Sapp

    Lithium is not a rare earth metal. It is also found in greatest quantity in the Western Hemisphere.

    I although it would be a weight penalty, I think lithium air should just hold the right oxygen/nitrogen mix for the batteries onboard. At a later point they could develop filters and desiccant systems which protect the batteries. These systems might weight as much or more initially anyway.

  • Andy

    No doubt that by 2030 we will have reached technological singularity, machines will have artificial inteligence & become self aware. Then we will become the battery of choice. ;-)

  • Duude

    Would you believe that seven years from now internal combustion engines will be pushing 200 miles a gallon on regular gasoline? Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. So what’s the point in hyping the hypothetical details? What’s the point of pulling stats out of my butt? Who cares what noted researchers are behind it? Its all fluff to keep the dream alive, and of course, to win over more government loans that will likely be here today and gone tomorrow.

  • Mr. Fusion

    @Andy: LOL, we’ll all be Kurzweil Skynet Copper-Tops.

    Machines are designing machines, so no doubt that there will be major break throughs in the next decade. Say good-bye to the Jurassic Car.

  • Laurence Schechtman

    A super battery will not only drive cars but will store power for solar and wind.

    Unfortunately, this will all happen too late to keep global warming from passing the tipping point.

    Thank you oil and coal companies and their Republican stooges. We should have poured money into renewables a decade ago, but the deniers were spreading their money around.

  • NEU

    The first electric car’s (model was built in 1834) battery was a capacitor. A carbon nanotube enhanced supercapacitor module will be the answer, it has two major advantages; very fast charging and long-life (up to a century) If you look a nature, everything is based on carbon. The fundamental principle of nature is the answer (will always be) The NEU is the future, but because lithium and oil are the energy sources of this global empire, the world has to wait, unless the world stops this new super imperialism.

  • RXD

    I woiuld like to know voltage as well as energy density for a working cell? Wanting to power LED lights with fewer cells than currently plausible.

  • Anonymous

    I do not understand why IBM sound make that they are almost sucessful. All articles related with lithium air batteries from IBM sound pretty much successful and IBM will make real prototype soon. Please, show the performance from your prototype first and then reveal your final story. IBM has a lot of money and know that they will take responsibilty for what they claimed. If IBM researchers are not ready to take any responsibility for what they are claiming now, they should be more careful. nothing are done yet! please!!
    I do not think that those researchers do not neet to deal with a lot of politics to raise money at this point.

  • shira manoza

    This scientific detective work included a form of atomistic modelling down to the quantum mechanics of the components … text spy

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