Battery Technology Developments

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted February 25, 2013

After lithium-ion batteries…lithium-air.

Some time back, Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) of Japan and Germany’s BMW Group were reported to have begun research on developing lithium-air batteries. A prototype fuel-cell vehicle is expected by around 2020, with a concept midsize SUV emerging sometime by the end of 2013.

Now, International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has entered the fray. Next year, IBM plans to come out with a prototype lithium-air battery that would represent increases in storage capacity.

Bloomberg reports:

“We picked the path with the biggest risks and the biggest rewards,” Spike Narayan, science and technology director at IBM Research in San Jose, California, said in an interview. “This is a moonshot.”

One of the greatest problems with lithium-ion batteries is, interestingly, the risk of catching fire. You may recall the recent grounding of the Boeing Dreamliner airplanes—that was due to this precise problem.

General Motors (NYSE: GM) also got hit after its Volt plug-in car’s lithium-ion batteries caught fire during safety tests two years ago.

Typically, the heat factor for lithium-ion batteries is seen as part of the package, and engineers rely on cooling systems or emergency shut-off systems designed to be tripped after heat reaches some maximum threshold. Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA), for example, uses the latter approach.

But even aside from heat issues, lithium-ion batteries have a low power density. In other words, especially in vehicular applications, lithium-ion batteries do not inspire confidence. As we all know, driving range on a single charge has long been the bane of electric vehicles.

Lithium-air isn’t a complicated concept—it simply draws on the natural energy produced when the metal reacts with oxygen present in atmospheric air. On a larger scale, it could offer about as much energy per weight of the battery as a gallon of gasoline within the next five years or so, Bloomberg reports.

IBM has already made this process work over 10 consecutive charge cycles. Now the problem is getting it to work over longer charge periods, meaning higher numbers of charge cycles—in the hundreds or even thousands. All of that means systemic improvements, which is what IBM is currently working on.

IBM is not alone in the race toward lithium-air battery technology, as Toyota and BMW are already in the game. Add to that MIT researchers, who would like to use carbon nanotubes instead of lithium-ion, and Seeo, a startup that has billionaire Vinod Khosla’s backing, which relies on a dry electrolyte that is lighter than the usual liquid form.

Thus far, the problem with all of these approaches is reproducibility. The chemical process that lies at the heart of the simple fact of storing electricity is seemingly hard to really improve upon. That’s quite unlike electronics and microchips, where Moore’s Law implies drastic improvements in short amounts of time, Bloomberg reports.

We may not see any radical revision in lithium-driven battery technology for another decade or so.

However, the current state of affairs isn’t terrible. Those championing a shift away from oil and gas, especially in the vehicular market, point to the evolutionary changes ongoing in the lithium-ion battery sector. These changes, while certainly not shattering existing records, do mean that lithium-ion batteries are becoming consistently more efficient, more reliable, and boast greater power density.

Tesla, for example, claims to currently have the highest single-charge range of all EVs—300 miles. Last year, the company fell short of its production goal for the $57,000 Model S electric sedans (5,000). However, it wasn’t alone—Chevrolet and Nissan both missed their targets too.

All of this doesn’t have the government too happy. In 2009, U.S. President Obama had set a target for the nation: put 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015.

Well, we can probably scratch that out; thus far, just about 50,000 EVs (or even fewer) have been sold.

China is in the same boat—the nation had aimed for 500,000 EVs on the road by 2015, but as of the end of 2012, around 13,000 had been sold.

As mentioned earlier, the biggest drawback to EVs presently is their limited range. But a lack of charging infrastructure across the nation as well as high upfront costs pose additional problems.

If you run out of gas, a gas station is probably around the corner or two blocks down. At this point, the same cannot be said for EV charging stations—a factor that clearly discourages would-be EV adopters. That’s why lithium-air technology could be the next big thing.

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