Major research initiatives sometimes begin with a startling revelation. So it was with IBM's Battery 500 project.
Winfried Wilcke, the program leader, attended an energy workshop at Stanford University in August of 2008. During a break, Nobel Physics Laureate Burton Richter told him that the US electrical grid had the capacity to charge all of the cars in the country at night if they were electric. "I said to myself, 'He must be kidding.' But I did the calculations, and he was basically right," says Wilcke. That launched Wilcke on a quest to develop a new battery technology that would make it possible for a family sedan to travel 500 miles on a single overnight charge-making it a practical all-purpose vehicle.
Wilcke's quest reached a milestone today with the announcement that two industry leaders, Asahi Kasei and Central Glass-have partnered with IBM in a research collaboration aimed at fulfilling the 500-mile dream via new lithium-air battery technology. Asahi Kasei is one of Japan's leading chemical manufacturers. Central Glass is a top electrolyte manufacturer for lithium-ion batteries. They will work with an extended Battery 500 research team that includes scientists at IBM's labs in San Jose, Calif., and Zurich, Switzerland, and at several U.S. national labs, including Argonne and Stanford-SLAC.
The Battery 500 scientists have already achieved several breakthroughs, but, if their technology is to be successful they will require assistance and acceptance from a vast swath of the global auto industry. "This is like climbing Everest," Wilcke says. "We have left the base camp behind, but it's very risky and there are no guarantees we'll reach the summit. But-no guts, no glory."
The project began in earnest two years ago, and Wilcke says it could take a decade or more to bring a new battery technology to market. The goal is to have a good prototype built within a couple of years-a stretch goal, he says.
Lithium-air batteries mark a departure from today's lithium-ion batteries like those used in Tesla Motors' electric vehicles. Lithium-air batteries use lightweight nano-structured carbon cathodes, replacing the heavy metal-oxide 'intercalation' cathodes of the lithium-ion batteries. Oxygen from the air reacts with the lithum in the carbon cathodes, creating an air-breathing battery that is smaller, lighter and can go farther on a charge. And, don't worry: during recharge, the oxygen absorbed during driving is released back into the atmosphere.
The research has taken some interesting turns. Early on, the IBM team discovered that a lot of the conventional thinking about what it would take to develop a rechargeable lithium air battery was wrong. Scientists elsewhere had been experimenting with using carbonates organic liquids to serve as electrolytes in the battery. (Electrolytes conduct electricity in the form of moving ions and are an important component in all batteries) But the IBM-led team discovered via differential electrochemical mass spectrometry they developed that battery experiments using those electrolytes weren't charging at all - the batteries destroyed themselves. But a switch to different classes of electrolytes, aided by extensive supercomputer simulation of electrolyte molecules in a Lithium-air battery - dramatically changed the picture and demonstrated that Lithium-air batteries are rechargeable.
Now the team is further improving chemical stabilities of the components, developing new cathode nano-structures to increase the power density of the battery, or watts per kilogram, by a significant factor. They have discovered the origins of several important effects in Lithium-air batteries through a combination of laboratory experiments and atomistic supercomputer simulations.
Battery 500 is one of more than 50 similar efforts worldwide aimed at developing lithium-air battery technologies. Wilcke sees the others as comrades-in-arms, in addition to being competitors. "I think we have enough worldwide horsepower focusing on this. This is a dramatic change from two years ago," he says.
Having a critical mass of scientists working on lithium-air matters is important. If batteries using this technology can be commercialized - which is still a big if - it will turn the electrical grid into an even more vital component in the complex web of life on earth-and a crucial element of creating a smarter planet.