IBM Develops a Lithium-Air Battery With a 500-Mile Range for Electric Vehicles

Electric cars can be much better for the environment–and they’re geekier–because you’re driving with pure energy. The biggest downside right now is that energy does not last very long with the smallish capacitance of lithium-ion car batteries that you have to charge overnight.

IBM is onto what it thinks is a breakthrough lithium-air battery that can theoretically store 1,000 times more energy than today’s lithium ion battery. The huge jump in energy density could effectively quintuple your electric vehicle’s range from 100 miles to 500 miles. Imagine an electric car Nissan Leaf that can go 500 miles instead of 100 miles, or a Tesla Roadster that can go 125 miles per hour for more than 600 miles.

Unlike the batteries we have used in the past (lead acid, nickel metal hydride, and so on), Li-air batteries don’t use metal to conduct a charge. Instead, the energy flow is created from the air reacting with lithium ions and a carbon matrix. So while you drive, the battery literally breathes in air to produce more energy, which extends the range of a single charge.

This research on lithium-air batteries has been on going since 2009 when IBM first started the Battery 500 project.

The reason we are not using these magical, breathing batteries right now is because they are also chemically unstable, and as of right now, frequent recharges completely destroy the battery life. The researchers discovered that the oxygen is also reacting with in-turn depletes the electrolytic solvent, a conducting solution that moves Li-ions between the electrodes and regulates the chemical reaction.

Now researchers collaborating between IBM’s Almaden laboratories and Zurich research labs in Switzerland think they have found an alternative electrolytes that won’t react to the air. If everything turns out as promising as it seems, the scientists predict they will have a working prototype by 2013 and a commercial battery by 2020.

Of course, we really wouldn’t mind having longer lasting batteries in some of our everyday devices and laptops too.