Inside Scoop on the Lithium-air Battery

Battery technologies are what allow us to run our lives as we have been accustomed to for generations, but what we seldom realize is that even the favorite batteries in various markets exhibit room for improvements. Our national goal of switching to cleaner and domestic energy sources in order to reduce our dependency on foreign fossil fuels relies heavily on the benefits of batteries and further research in energy storage capabilities. Currently, the most touted “lithium-air” battery shows several reasons of promise of knocking off the popular lithium-ion batteries from the throne in various consumer electronics, and possibly the lead-acid batteries in combustion engine vehicles.

The Li-air battery uses atmospheric oxygen as its medium for allowing the flow of electric current between the anode and the cathode, meaning that it would be much lighter than typical batteries, the source for the electrolyte is ubiquitous, and the energy density is attractively much greater [1]. A major drawback is that it has proven difficult to recharge a Li-air battery. This certainly does not impress the consumer who is stricken with range anxiety.

IBM’s Battery500 Project is a new effort in four laboratories for testing Li-air batteries aspiring to produce one that could power a car for 500 miles. However, because its theoretical energy density is one thousand times greater than what a Nissan Leaf is hauling under its hood, there is also the highly hazardous risk of instability and thus inflammability – possibly the most frightening to the average consumer [2]. Testing of a new material to address this issue is a main priority at the IBM labs, and we can expect to see a prototype sometime this year [3].

For those supporting the wave of reduced- or zero-emission vehicles, this breakthrough in battery technology can mean the difference between being stuck in the century-old transportation infrastructure tailored for gasoline and diesel vehicles to shifting to one that is better suited to utilize sustainable sources of energy like solar and wind generated power.

Energy Secretary Chu said earlier this week that “we can get to $20,000 with no subsidies,” referring to costs of electric vehicles [4]. Pike Research produced results projecting that sales of EVs could surpass the Obama Administration’s goal of having 1 million by 2015 [5]. With recent trends as optimistic and backed as these, the outlook for lithium-air batteries seems more than hopeful.

Further, consider the automobile industry giants Toyota and BMW who have agreed to partner in research for Li-air battery technology, combining their strengths to gain a competitive edge in a maturing market. GM and PSA Peugeot Citroen have also agreed to a similar venture for the collective purchasing of auto parts and services [6].

The current disadvantages to the lithium-air battery will likely be studied diligently by both government and industry over the next few years as the many related market players are preparing for the best. While Li-air may have the lead now, these rising advents in battery tech are all helping pave the road for a more electrified transportation infrastructure and more efficient grid-scale energy storage.







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