Is The Lit-Air Battery Finally the Electric Car Breakthrough?
Besides, electricity for the things has to be generated from something, and that something usually involves means that involve at least as much CO2 being released into the atmosphere as there is in auto exhaust. Just because it’s done at a few removes from the car itself doesn’t lessen its reality or impact — the fact that your grandfather gave your father $100 to give you doesn’t negate the fact that it had to come out of somebody’s pocket somewhere.
Be all that as it may, yes, there is probably a niche for electric cars in densely-populated areas, where somebody just wants a vehicle to run to the grocery store and back, drop the kids off at school, football practice and birthday parties, zip over to a friend’s house, drive to the movies and Best Buy, go to church, the golf course and the like. Short jaunts, not over 100 miles round-trip. That’s the sweet spot as far as marketing electric cars is concerned.
Because according to a recent piece in New Scientist, the major stumbling block for consumers is “range anxiety,” the fear that there you’ll be, tooling down the road, when bzzzz… your battery dies, and all you can do is sit there and wait for either the Energizer Bunny or a gasoline-powered tow truck to come get you.
Let’s Deal With Your Road Range.
Get rid of range anxiety, and people who don’t mind topping out at 50 miles per hour have a lot more reason to give electric cars and their sweet styling another look. As New Scientist says, range anxiety might be solvable, if a recent claim by IBM of having solved “a fundamental problem” is true.
Basically, Big Blue says that they think it’s possible — nay, probable — that they can create a battery with a 500-mile range. That would, as they say, finally position electric cars as a competitive option to gasoline engines for the first time.
The problem so far has been that electric cars are forced to use lithium-ion (Li-ion, but let’s call them “Lion”) batteries, which as New Scientist sniffs, “are bulky and rarely provide 100 miles of driving before they run down.”
Fine if your automotive needs are fully satisfied within a 25-mile radius in a major city where you can recharge, such as, oh, Florence, but hardly a mass interest item in the United States. They look good, though. They look real good.
Looking into the problem is IBM’s Lithium/Air Battery Project, “Battery 500” on the t-shirts, a joined research effort since 2009 with national labs and commercial partners, lists on its Web site as its “Goal: create a powerful new battery for electric cars as good as gasoline, 500 miles range per charge” with “a total electric drive system comparable in size, weight and price to a gasoline drive train.”Project members like to point out that a hundred years ago, more cars were powered by electricity than gas. True, but back then most people lived, worked and died pretty close where they were born and saw little reason to venture further, too. Hour-long commutes were fairly rare. Today “the need for longer travel ranges, the availability of a more affordable fuel source and a reliable power infrastructure soon turned internal combustion engines into the predominant means of motor transportation,” the team recognizes.The technical approach they’re taking involves the consideration that a lightweight air-cathode replaces the heavy metal-oxide cathodes of today, and features an “encapsulated Lithium metal anode.”
The Secret? “The Battery Breathes Air.”
IBM’s scientists are talking about a lithium-air cell, which has — we majored in English so we’ll quote here — “theoretical energy densities more than 1000 times greater than the Lion type, putting it almost on a par with gasoline.”
As the team’s site explains, lithium-air batteries “borrow oxygen from the air as the vehicle is being driven, creating an air-breathing battery,” as opposed to a fire-breathing dragon, say, “enabling extended range from a single charge.”
The team’s site notes that “this is a very high risk/ high reward, long horizon project,” citing “three years of basic science,” with “known commercial applications before about 2020.” And it mentions that if successful, “such batteries could dramatically reduce oil dependency.”
That means you can go about as far on a full charge with one of these puppies as you can with a full tank of gas. Of course the first time you use the car you have to run the battery completely down, otherwise the battery will only recharge as much as it does when you plug in the recharger for the first time… oh sorry, had a 1998 IBM ThinkPad flashback there…
… chemical instabilities which limit their lifespan when recharging, New Scientist notes. Which means that you can’t really use them in cars yet. Which means that, well, they’re not exactly the silver bullet answer for electric cars, which are, after all is said and done, cars.
But the good news in all this is that IBM physicist Winfried Wilcke, who works at the company’s Almaden laboratories in San Jose, discovered recently that in such batteries, “oxygen is reacting not just with the carbon electrode, as it was known to, but also with the electrolytic solvent — the conducting solution that carries the lithium ions between the electrodes.”
What Wilcke and his team — Battery 500 is an IBM-led coalition involving four US national laboratories and commercial partners — found is that “if the electrolyte reacts with the oxygen when the car is in use it will eventually be depleted.” So in collaboration with colleagues in Switzerland, Wilcke and the team used a Blue Gene supercomputer to run what New Scientist described as “extremely detailed models of the reactions to look for alternative electrolytes.”
We Could Have The Answer — In 2020.
And bingo — Wilcke found a material he called “promising,” which he won’t disclose, naturally. He assures the journal that “several research prototypes have already been demonstrated,” and said they hope to have a full-scale prototype ready by 2013. The earliest they’re looking at putting a working 500-mile battery in a car is 2020, so don’t junk your gas guzzler quite yet.
Because there are still a few kinks to be worked out. According to Zhang, T. et al. (2010), “A novel high energy density rechargeable lithium/air battery,” in the journal Chemical Communications, current cell designs require that the charge overpotential is much higher than the discharge overpotential, so “the presence of a significant charge overpotential indicates secondary reactions, besides recharging, are occurring. As a result, the electrical efficiency is only around 65 percent.”
Efficiency is a persistent problem when trying to find something other than the good ol’ gas-powered internal combustion engine to power a car.
But that’s not the only catch the Battery 500 team is working on. “Long term battery operation requires chemical stability of all the components of the cell,” and “current cell designs show poor resistance to oxidation by the reaction products and intermediates,” according to Kraytsberg A, Ein-Eli Y (2011), “Review on Lit-air batteries – Opportunities, limitations and perspective” in Journal of Power Sources.
And one of the biggest problems is simply finding the right environmental interface. As the Kraytsberg article suggests, atmospheric oxygen is needed for cell operation, “but the cell must be shielded from the environment, as water vapor can rapidly degrade the system.”
But still, it’s an intriguing possibility. And those cars sure do look great.