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Dr. Winfried Wilcke Headshot

Jumpstarting the Real Electric Car Revolution

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GM's Volt. Tesla's Roadster. Nissan's Leaf. The era of the electric car is finally arriving, when we can depend on plentiful and cheap electricity to get us to where we want to go, rather than relying on increasingly expensive and scarce oil.

As exciting as this new auto age is, though, all you have to do is study the numbers to realize we're still taking baby steps. The Tesla Roadster gets around 200 miles between recharges, but it also costs $129,000. The Volt and Leaf are more affordable, but only get around 40 miles and 100 miles respectively per charge. For most Americans, these mileage and price limitations are deal breakers. Rather than a mass-market replacement for the family car, the first generation of electric cars is an interesting innovation for early adaptors.

The real electric car revolution won't happen until we solve questions about range, how to recharge them and make cars that everyone can afford.

At IBM, one way we're tackling these challenges is the ambitious Battery 500 Project. The goal? Develop lightweight, rechargeable batteries that can power cars for 500 miles without being recharged and that don't break the bank either.

With the Battery 500 Project, we're completely rethinking the power source for the electric car. The current generation of electric cars runs on lithium ion batteries, the kind of batteries that power laptops or iPhones.

Manufacturers are slowly improving the performance and reducing the costs of lithium ion batteries. But these batteries are still too heavy and expensive for electric vehicle cars to go mainstream. When it comes to energy density - the amount of power a battery can deliver for its size and weight - even lithium ion batteries are pipsqueaks compared to a tank of gasoline.

So researchers around the world are working on new chemistries such as Metal-air batteries. These batteries already power millions of very small devices. The challenge is to make them rechargeable and big enough for cars. Metal-air batteries have much higher energy densities than lithium-ion batteries -- which could translate into 500 miles of range per charge using a reasonably sized and hopefully affordable battery. But make no mistake, this may be as big a technical challenge as the moon landing once was. We are making good progress in our laboratories. This is only our second year of work on Lithium/Air batteries at IBM Research, yet we're getting cautiously optimistic and expect to show a large laboratory prototype within the next two years.

The pay-off, if successful, could transform economies and have major impact on our oil use because 70 percent of all oil used in the United States is burned in cars and trucks, whereas virtually no oil is being used in generating electricity.

Cheaper, lighter car batteries, though, are just one part of the equation. For electric vehicles to proliferate, we also have to have a system for charging them.

The good news is that a powerful 600 gigawatt electrical grid is already in place and for the next few years, the grid can easily handle electric cars. But the long term presents challenges.

The current model of gasoline cars, where one drives up to a station and leaves a few minutes later with enough gasoline aboard to drive several hundred miles, cannot be transferred to electric cars. It would take a huge, multi-megawatt power-line to do an equivalent feat for an electric car. But there is an alternative: 54 percent of all U.S. households have access to a garage where a slow, low-cost overnight charge is feasible. Combined with a long range battery, this will provide a user friendly experience, and the electric grid needs to be only mildly upgraded for at-home charging since the demand for electricity at night is so low.

For the remainder of the population it will be necessary to install new charging stations - at work, shopping malls and parking lots. But higher stress on the grid during the day could make this difficult, expensive and restrict driving ranges. Smarter management of grids will help to deal with these issues. Fortunately, time is on our side.

America pioneered the car culture, but it must change significantly over the next two decades. Now we have the opportunity to stake out a new future for the automobile that will improve our lives, create new industries, reduce dependency on oil and improve the lives of people around the world. It is one of the biggest opportunities of our lifetime - let's make good use of it.

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