Friday, April 20, 2012

The IBM Battery 500 Revs Up

us__en_us__energy__battery500_info2__748x443Although IBM is largely focused on computer science issues, it has labs all over the world that do all kinds of things – after all, IBM is also focused on making money. This page contains a good slice of what IBM is doing in the energy sphere.

But I was most interested in its battery technology project for electric cars.

IBM correctly notes drivers’ range anxiety, the fear that they’ll be in the middle of nowhere when the battery runs dry. Using today’s lithium-ion technology, electric cars can get about 100 miles on a charge – with the air conditioning blasting, 4 miles (kidding.)

So that’s the problem. Here’s the proposed solution:

Recognizing this [range anxiety], IBM started the Battery 500 project in 2009 to develop a new type of lithium-air battery technology that is expected to improve energy density tenfold, dramatically increasing the amount of energy these batteries can generate and store. Today, IBM researchers have successfully demonstrated the fundamental chemistry of the charge-and-recharge process for lithium-air batteries.

It’s even green beyond green.

During discharge (driving), oxygen from the air reacts with lithium ions, forming lithium peroxide on a carbon matrix. Upon recharge, the oxygen is given back to the atmosphere and the lithium goes back onto the anode.

Well, almost. I assume it is giving back less oxygen than it is taking, but if oxygen is your exhaust, that’s not bad. (There’s more to say on this. This part isn’t really working yet.)

And it gets (potentially) 500 hundred miles per charge.

I have no idea whether this can be scaled to work in cars or even work as advertised – on a corporate web site, you can’t expect much more than good news. Extreme Tech tries for a little more context:

Lithium-air batteries aren’t a new idea: They’ve been mooted since the 1970s, but the necessary tech was well beyond the capabilities of then-contemporary material science. Today, with graphene and carbon nanotubes and fancy membranes coming out of our ears, it seems IBM — with assistance from partners Asahi Kasei and Central Glass — now has the materials required to build a lithium-air battery. There is a video embedded below that details the electrochemical process of an li-air battery.

We should also note that the project utilizes IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer to work out the chemistry – so it is selling its computers as being able to do such things.

Mobile & Apps is a little clearer on the downsides of the technology – or at least the challenges it is presenting:

[IBM’s Winfried] Wickle reckoned that one of the challenges was the belief that lithium-air batteries are rechargeable, but that turned out to be false. "What was thought to be rechargeability was in fact confused with destruction of battery." In theory, upon recharge the battery was supposed to release pure oxygen to the air. Instead of the oxygen, however, it was releasing carbon dioxide, the very greenhouse gas that electric vehicles aim to reduce.

Oops. That wouldn’t be good. The story goes to say that the solution, as in Idiocracy, might be electrolytes. This paints the technology as maturing but still uncertain and the outlook hazy but clearing. It’s the classic wait-and-see, but it’s worth doing until the nascent electric car market collapses or as long as IBM’s patience (and money) holds out. This would be a big deal if it came to fruition.

The nuclear angle is the same as it always has been on this subject. Electric cars need electricity – it they get traction on their own or are mandated at some point, a lot of electricity. Some kinds of energy might seem to mitigate the benefits of an electric car – nuclear much less so. Benefit upon benefit, you might say.

How the battery works. Click for large or view at IBM’s site.

2 comments:

jimwg said...

Good article.
It's amazing how much the public think electric cars are juiced with magic, with small reality-adjustment by commercials and news media.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

Excellent source of CO2! We should keep this technology on hand for the next global cooling cycle when Time magazine flips back to its previous scare topic that we are all going to freeze to death in the impending ice age. We can just fire up the old coal plants again and use them to charge our lithium-air batteries to help stop global cooling... as if...