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.