IBM Welcomes Japanese Partners to Potentially World-Changing 'Battery 500' Project

Today IBM announced it has taken on two major Japanese research partners to help with its Battery 500 lithium-air project intended to make internal combustion powered vehicles obsolete in around a decade or so from now.

Begun in 2009, the project has the none-too-bashful goal of developing an electric passenger vehicle battery technology capable of delivering 500 miles on a charge. The round number of “500” represents how far a present-day internal combustion vehicle can go assuming a sizable fuel tank.

The assumption is consumers do not want to sacrifice, and to be sure, IBM says 64 percent say they have range anxiety with today’s 75-125 mile battery electric vehicle performance.

To overcome this, IBM’s researchers have been quoted as saying energy density deemed acceptable by a battery they produce should be 10-13 times above the lithium-ion batteries in a Tesla Roadster.

The new R&D partners are Asahi Kasei and Central Glass.

Of Asahi, IBM says it is “one of Japan’s leading chemical manufacturers and a leading global supplier of separator membrane for lithium-ion batteries.” Of Central Glass, IBM says it is “a leading global electrolyte manufacturer for lithium-ion batteries, will use its chemical expertise in this field to create a new class of electrolytes and high-performance additives specifically designed to improve lithium-air batteries.”

IBM says together, the Japanese scientific talent will expand the project’s scope and explore several chemistries simultaneously to increase chances for success.

At the same time, IBM states this is a “high risk” project that also stands to be high reward. The company speaks of its role in historical terms as a potential facilitator to humankind’s energy reliance away from fossil fuels toward reliable, viable electrical power.

Reasons for the goal are not just the normally cited energy security, reduction of carbon footprint, and need for replacements in light of oil having peaked. These reasons are compounded by the not-too-distant future scenario of rapid population growth and where things are going to go if internal combustion power is not replaced.

Studies have globally projected many more humans crammed into mega cities, and sprawling suburbs. And having become accustomed to standards set in the 20th and early 21st centuries, these people will likewise demand personal transportation, some – including IBM – have said. All this points to crisis scenarios if replacement for gasoline and diesel is not found.

Calmly acknowledging these looming possibilities, IBM has said its “lithium-air” battery has shown enough promise to put its company reputation on the line and says it sees its goals as attainable, and a worthwhile endeavor at any rate.

Not to sound too new agey, but the premise is there is energy in the air all around us – OK, with a little help from chemistry that can make use of it, that is …

In short, IBM’s lightweight and energy dense lithium-air battery uses air – specifically oxygen – from the atmosphere as a reagent much like a gasoline engine does (see videos also).

IBM says it hopes li-air will be the next evolutionary leap beyond today’s lithium-ion chemistries which it says are inadequate for widespread EV acceptance.

Back to the Tesla Roadster example, IBM noted that its battery pack has energy density of about 150 watt-hours per kilogram. IBM’s researchers have said they are shooting for 1,500-2,000 watt-hours per kilogram, at which point the world can say sayonara to grungy fuel burners without need for a wistful looking back.

We’ve reported on this project before, and today’s announcement is just more potentially positive news for what IBM says is still in the early stages of research, and it is not over-hyping this work.

After IBM proves an already promised prototype – hoped for in a couple years or so – it says the goal is to enter an “engineering phase” to develop commercial-grade batteries that would be ready for manufacturing into electric vehicles.

Following are questions we sent via e-mail today, and (brief) answers received from IBM Communications Spokesperson Ari Entin:

Q: I read the press release, but on a scale of 1-10, what is the actual value these new partners bring to the project to seeing a 500 mile range battery?

A: We’ve made a number of important scientific discoveries and demonstrated the science behind our battery technology works. These partners bring critical expertise necessary to scale up to a larger lab prototype.

Q: I’ve read IBM has made good progress so far, can you update me on a hoped-for/projected timeline to production ready status?

A: We’re looking to have a significant lab prototype around the end of 2013 but want to be very clear that we won’t see these being sold in a showroom this decade. The soonest one would see these on city streets would be between 2020 – 2030.

Q: What would be the next step if IBM had a production-ready battery? – after all, it is not a car manufacturer.

A: We’re still in the science phase, not engineering, but you’re right in that IBM is not a battery manufacturing company, nor will it become one. When the time is right, we’ll seek out, develop and license this technology with partners.

I want to believe

So, what do we make of this? You can joke about rumored Eestor super capacitors, tell us you’ll believe it when you see it, if you wish. We get that.

We’ll merely note this is not a fly by night operation, we already are living in a world of amazing technology brought about by science, and IBM’s collaboration is international between leading U.S., Swiss, and other scientists. In the States, the effort includes research by national labs with such names as Argonne, Lawrence Livermore, Pacific Northwest, and Oak Ridge.

The flip side to all this is one can deduce IBM essentially thinks a car like the Nissan Leaf has energy density of maybe only one-tenth of what is needed for a full-on paradigm shift away from fossil fuels.

On the other hand again, we hear from plenty of happy EVers today who say the Leaf’s range is acceptable, but even executives at companies like Ford have lately been acting like their own Focus EV is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Given many brilliant and capable minds are working on IBM’s 8 to 18-year project portrayed as urgently needed if human civilization is to continue expanding with acceptable quality of life, we are eager to see where this goes. But like you, we’ll just have to wait and see.

You can learn more about Battery 500 by watching the videos, and can read further on IBM’s Web site.


  • Paul J. Watson

    I am a biologist, but tried being a ZENN LSV/MSV seller for about 2.5 years, until they went out of business. I have a 2009 ZENN here in Albuquerque with 18,300 miles on it. I’ve never been stranded. I think about range all the time, but never have anxiety about it. Why do people have range anxiety? I think I just figured out why it is such a tough problem.

    Virtually everyone, often at tender young formative ages, have had an electric toy they were really having fun with at the time run out of battery power. “Dad?! Mom?! Do we have any new batteries for my toy? No sweetie. Not right now. Are they size C? I have some doubleA’s. No Mom, they’re D’s. Well sweetie, maybe we can get some when we go shopping on Tuesday.” Its crushing. It wires your brain for range anxiety.

  • Richard Thomas

    So, how long will it be before the “greenies” warn that if all cars are of the new Li-ion design we will run out of oxygen and some other doom and gloom person gets a huge government grant to write a book like Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb?

  • Van

    I think the idea of needing a 500 mile range now is wrong. But we definitely need a real world range in excess of 120 miles, rain or shine.

    Thus a 42 KWh usable storage capacity (3.6 miles per kwh x 42 = 150 mile range) seems about right. Currently EV cost about $35,000 (i.e. the Leaf) and have a range of about 75 miles) With a usable storage of say 24 KWh, (86 mile range) we can guess at the battery cost as about $15,000 or about $600 per KWh. Hence we need battery cost to come down to about $350 per KWh. And then we could market EV’s as city cars, with ample range for a run to the mall, park, airport or cafe, as well as back and forth to work.

    I think such batteries are going to hit the market for the 2015 model year. Time will tell.

  • Ramon Leigh

    IBM is totally misunderstanding the problem if they imagine that energy density is the obstacle. PRICE is the obstacle and until they can promise a battery 5 to 10 times cheaper, whatever they produce, regardless of its energy density, has little value. I have even heard crazy and nonsensical claims that a battery’s density must equal that of gasoline to be a successful competitor – the argument stupidly ignores all the extra weight required by a gas powered vehicle (engine, tranny, fuel system, exhaust system, etc.) to burn that “low density energy source.” Current li ion batteries are light enough – Tesla with its 320 mile range (and that could be extended if one wanted to pay for it) and recharge time of under 1 hour, demonstrates that even on a trip, an electric won’t appreciably slow you down. 75 to 100 mile ranged vehicles are useful to relatively few – they cost way too much for being a car that cannot satisfy user demands. They can only exist as a second car for those with a fair amount of cash and who can deceive themselves into believing that they would be making a difference.

  • Hobie McCat

    Paul,

    You have never been stranded, because you have no life beyond Albuquerque…and if you do, you aren’t using your 2009 ZENN to get there. Over 35% of household have children…and those children need to go to sports events, recitals, sleep overs, birthday parties, class trips, etc and that takes a lot of miles on the road.

    Another 40% are empty Nesters and have extended family or are Grand Parents. Families with kids, either in or out of the home have travel needs and it’s always been the family and their car needs that have driven Auto sales…The explosion of the MiniVan in the 80′s and 90′s was driven by households with children. When mini-vans became a maligned stereotype for the “soccer mom”, the trend switched to more trendy and masculine SUV’s, today’s cross-overs and such. I and over 95% of my friends are empty nesters, but we still travel far and wide to visit our children. Range Anxiety is not only very, very real…if not addressed, this WILL BE the death of the electric vehicle…I guarantee and would bet my life on that.

    The “push” by IBM however doesn’t seem to be very sincere. Come-on…2030? Exponential advances in technology has been occurring at a rapid pace in just about every industry except the Auto industry and fuel economy for generations. We have mini computers (smart phones) that talk back to us that we can slip in our pants pockets, but we can’t seem to develop a car that gets over 50MPH? The 1908 Model T’s got better gas mileage (25MPG) than a majority of cars on the road today.

    Yes…I think IBM is definitely seeking a new revenue source…but it has nothing to do with this battery…The revenue source is the big billion dollar pay-off they are getting by keeping this technology off the market.

  • Hobie McCat

    Van,

    You think the idea of needing a 500 mile range vehicle is wrong????? Why…do you work for Chevron or BP????

  • Van

    Hi Hobie, can you not read, I said NOW, leaving the giant step for later. Why question my motives rather than address my view that we need EV’s with 120 mile range rain or shine. I believe my view will result in more quickly shifting away from fossil fuel than waiting for the perfect. NMC batteries are on the drawing boards of car makers now.

  • Collin Burnell

    Wow! Excellent discussion! I have to admit, I am experiencing Range Anxiety and I haven’t purchased an EV yet. I am passionate about being a part of the adoption of pure EV’s but 75 miles on a charge would make life challenging. I believe for me a more fuel efficient hybrid (I have a Nissan Altima Hybrid now) will most likely be what I end up buying.

    I think you are all correct! More energy density / lighter weight AND reduction in cost will both play major roles in the adoption of EV’s. I believe that simply doubling the range of EV’s to 140-170 miles would bring a lot more of us ‘on board’.

    We are getting there and we have made amazing strides in battery technology. I have never been more optimistic than I am now!

  • Capt. Concernicus

    Am I missing something here? It’s saying up to 500 miles on a charge. How’s it getting recharged? Are vehicles equipped with these batteries being plugged into a 120V or 240V outlet? How long does it take to recharge one of these batteries?

    People keep mentioning price as the top concern for EV’s. I don’t think it’s the biggest concern. I think it’s Range Anxiety, Length of Recharge Time, Lack of Charging Stations then Price.

    Anyway, the IBM website didn’t address how long it takes to recharge the batteries and that’s a big concern also.

  • FamilyGuy

    It’s not the range, it’s the recharge time and lack of locations.

    I make trips where I need to stop for gas all of the time. That only takes a few minutes, not a few hours. Also, gas stations are every where. I’ll take 300 miles instead of 500 miles if I can get recharge the battery in a few minutes and can do so in more places.

  • Deb

    Hi all–
    I have about 15,000 miles on my Tesla roadster, and I will admit to having extreme range anxiety the first time I took it on a 300 mile trip. But we planned a stop at an RV park along the way, had lunch and took a nap while the car was recharging (at 30 amps, 240 volts), and got to our destination in plenty of time. Climbing over a major mountain pass had me nearly in a panic but traveling down the other side put a whole bunch of miles back into the battery.

    Now, I rarely have range anxiety. We don’t use the roadster to travel across country, but we have two cars in our family. We use the other one for long trips and the Tesla for everyday driving. Now that we’ve had it a while, I never get range anxiety. While we own two different mobile charger connections (110V, and 240V), we hardly ever carry either one of them unless we’re making a major trip. 200 miles is WAY more range than I need for ordinary use.

  • Deb

    Hi all–
    I have about 15,000 miles on my Tesla roadster, and I will admit to having extreme range anxiety the first time I took it on a 300 mile trip. But we planned a stop at an RV park along the way, had lunch and took a nap while the car was recharging (at 30 amps, 240 volts), and got to our destination in plenty of time. Climbing over a major mountain pass had me nearly in a panic but traveling down the other side put a whole bunch of miles back into the battery.

    Now, I rarely have range anxiety. We don’t use the roadster to travel across country, but we have two cars in our family. We use the other one for long trips and the Tesla for everyday driving. Now that we’ve had it a while, I never get range anxiety. While we own two different mobile charger connections (110V, and 240V), we hardly ever carry either one of them unless we’re making a major trip. 200 miles is WAY more range than I need for ordinary use.