Will Lithium-Air Battery Be the Silver Bullet?

Currently, the lithium-ion battery is the most effective battery composition and the one being deployed by automakers in the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. It provides the most energy while taking the least amount of space. However, researchers at the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory just southwest of Chicago have a new solution in mind: lithium-air batteries.

Lithium-air, they claim, could produce five to 10 times the energy of lithium-ion batteries. This should help alleviate the dreaded “range anxiety” associated with the current generation of electric vehicles. The possibilities excite scientists because, according to basic chemistry a bit too complex to get into here, a lithium-air battery could rival the energy density of petroleum.

There’s just one problem, but it’s a big one: The lithium-air battery is not so much a tangible, “existing” thing. In fact, it’s little more than a bunch of equations at this point.

Before you sigh heavily, though, consider that the Department of Energy has coughed up money for lithium-air research and development. Two grants from the DOE’s portion of the stimulus package were awarded to lithium-air proposals. (Other winners included magnesium-zinc, zinc-air and “all electron” battery compositions.) IBM is also pursuing lithium-air.

The excitement lies in the idea that the lithium-air battery looks doable based on the periodic table. That may sound silly, but GM Director of Global Battery Systems Ronn Jamieson told The New York Times that the first step the automaker takes when assessing a new battery technology is to “check the science textbooks.”

“Is it physically possible?” Jamieson has to ask of every new proposal. “Does it defy the laws of physics or thermodynamics or anything else?”

The Argonne lab wants to pursue the lithium-air battery because it is the most energy-packed composition that meets and surpasses this standard.

The Argonne lab predicts that lithium-air remains a decade or two away from commercialization, but its prospects — that it could truly be a silver bullet to some of the most vexing hurdles facing widespread adoption of emissions-free vehicles — make it a technology to watch.

Photo: Argonne battery researcher Lynn Trahey (Credit: Wes Agresta / Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

Will Lithium-Air Battery Rescue Electric Car Drivers from ‘Range Anxiety’? (New York Times)

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