IBM closes in on 500-mile electric vehicles

Radical new battery technology could eradicate ‘range anxiety’

By Gavin Conway on January 16, 2012 1:15 PM

It is pretty much accepted wisdom that the two biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of pure-electric vehicles are range and high purchase cost.

The latter is offset by lower running costs, but that perception of excessive cost is still hard to shift. Likewise, even though the vast majority of us will never get near the approximate 100 mile range of the best current electric vehicles in our daily rounds, the perception that range is an issue sticks.

But just as the purchase price will come down as sales volumes increase, so too will range increase as technology develops. And the latest news on that front is hugely encouraging. According to a report by NewScientist magazine, tech giant IBM claims to have solved a key issue that could lead to the manufacture of a battery with 500 miles of range on a single charge.

It’s called a lithium-air cell and boasts an energy density much greater than that of the current lithium ion batteries in the likes of the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Roadster: 1500-2000 watt-hours per kilogram of weight compared with 150 watt-hours for lithium ion. In other words, lithium air holds roughly 10 times more energy for the same sized battery than what’s out there right now, which would put the range of a pure-electric vehicle on equal footing with a conventional petrol-powered car.

The lithium-air solution uses carbon in the positive electrode instead of metal oxides. This makes it much lighter and it also reacts with the air around it to produce electricity. But, as always, there’s a big caveat – chemical instabilities limit the battery’s lifespan when recharging, which could make them a non-starter for use in cars.

However, an IBM physicist looking at alternative electrolytic materials, which would help get around the problem, has found one that looks ‘very promising.’ IBM won’t reveal what that material is, but with its partners, hopes to have a full-scale prototype ready by next year.

One other problem that would need to be overcome is how the batteries would cope with moist air. Lithium in water can spontaneously catch fire, apparently. And the last thing anyone wants to read is a headline that includes the words ‘battery’ and ‘fire’, as anyone involved with the Chevy Volt will tell you.

Watch IBM scientists explain lithium air potential below or check out its Battery500 Project website here: