The era of the electric car is 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. However, big challenges remain as drivers consider a move away from gasoline as the primary source for automotive power.
Recognizing this, IBM Research started tackling this challenge in 2009 by pioneering a sustainable mobility project, called the Battery 500 Project. It’s goal was to solve one of the biggest barriers to widespread electric vehicle adoption: limited battery range.
Today’s electric cars can only travel about 150 miles on lithium-ion batteries, the same kind of technology that powers our computers and phones. For a car running on today’s lithium-ion batteries to match the range provided by a tank of gasoline, car manufacturers would need a very large battery which would weigh down the car and take up too much space. These batteries stand little chance of being cheap, light and small enough to power a typical family car to make their everyday use realistic.
To overcome this hurdle, IBM and its partners decided to completely rethink the power source for an electric car. They set out to develop lithium-air battery technology capable of powering a family-sized electric car for approximately 500 miles (800 km) on a single charge.
Instead of using heavy metal oxides, lithium-air batteries borrow oxygen from the air as the vehicle is being driven, creating an air-breathing battery. This results in lighter batteries with high energy density that extend the car’s range from a single charge.
IBM researchers have successfully demonstrated in the lab the fundamental chemistry of the charge-and-recharge process for lithium-air batteries and, if this bold research project is successful, people could see it in cars between 2020 and 2030.