Lithium Air Batteries Could Boost Electric Vehicle Range

Despite all the media attention devoted to electric vehicles, the number of electric cars on the road is still fairly small. For example, in their first year of availability in the U.S., the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt achieved sales of just over 17,000 units. Cost is still an issue for many consumers, but one other factor holding back sales is “range anxiety.” All electric vehicles can only run so far on a single charge, and there aren’t that many publicly accessible charging stations, especially in rural areas. Consumer Reports found that the Leaf, for instance, was only good for about 65 miles during a cold snap.

The solution to the range problem will come through better battery technology, and researchers at IBM have come up with what they claim is a practical, affordable option: a lithium air battery that can power a vehicle for 500 miles. Breaking that range barrier would greatly expand the market for electric vehicles, while providing engineers in a variety of fields with a new extended-range battery option.

A diagram explaining the lithium air battery technology. Image Courtesy: IBM

The technology under development via the Battery500 Project (launched in 2009) uses lithium air batteries that swap heavy-metal oxides for carbon that creates an electrical charge when it reacts with oxygen. IBM researchers at the company’s Almaden and Zurich labs are collaborating with the Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

To make the batteries more stable, IBM is looking for alternative electrolyte solvents that won’t degrade the battery during recharge. According to an article in New Scientist, the team has identified one possible compound (which they haven’t yet announced), and IBM hopes to have a prototype ready in 2013. Commercially available batteries could follow by 2020.

You can watch a video about the technology below:

Source: IBM

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5 Responses to Lithium Air Batteries Could Boost Electric Vehicle Range

  • Lenny says:

    I think the reason they only sold a small amount is, they only made a small amount. I don’t see any siting on a car lot anywhere, Do you?

  • Jamie Gooch says:

    That’s a good point, Lenny. We’re still in the early stages, so I’ll bet auto makers are still getting a handle on demand and supply.

  • Brian Albright says:

    You’re right, supply has been low; however, supply isn’t necessarily leading demand. If electric vehicles follow the same trend as hybrids, demand will be initially be led by legislation. According to data from R.L. Polk, hybrid sales have held steady at around 2 percent of all vehicle sales since 2006. The geographic pockets where ownership is highest is in regions where there are the most tax/legislative incentives (thus, California has the highest density of hybrid and electric cars). But take note that sales of the Volt and Leaf have matched or exceeded initial sales of the first hybrids during their first year of availability.

  • Bob Cook says:

    I don’t think the Volt should be in this article at all. It is a plug-in hybrid, and as such, it has a perfectly respectable range using its gasoline engine. Chevy advertises “up to 375 miles”, so even if it’s considerably less, that’s enough to overcome any “range anxiety”. The Leaf is all-electric, and range anxiety is definitely warranted there. (From a one-time user of an all-electric Honda EV-Plus.)

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