Lithium-air batteries closer to appearing in electric cars

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Lithium-air batteries are being developed, which could drastically boost the range of electric cars. Photo Credit: Raul/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

The thorn in the side of electric cars is the range of the lithium-ion battery. However, a battery of a different composition, the lithium-air battery, might be able to take an electric car much further and close the gap between fossil-fuel cars and electric cars.

Lithium-air batteries can do the same thing better

A number of scientists, colleges and private corporations are looking into the potential of a battery design called lithium-air, which could do wonders in electric vehicles. Lithium-air batteries, according to Gizmag, work just like lithium-ion batteries in that they conduct electrically charged particles from one end of a cell to another resulting in a discharge of electricity. However, lithium-air batteries use oxygen from the surrounding air to conduct particles rather than solid materials.

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A recent breakthrough was made, according to the New York Times, in lithium-air batteries by researchers at the University of St. Andrews, located in Fife, Scotland. The team, headed by Dr. Peter Bruce, was able to get a lithium-air battery cell to go through 100 charge-discharge cycles, meaning going from charged to full and then depleted, losing only 5 percent capacity.

First steps

Lithium batteries are the best type for cars and other applications, according to the New York Times, mainly because lithium has the greatest electrochemical potential per unit of mass. In other words, it makes the most electricity with the least amount of matter and weight. For cars that is absolutely ideal, as the heavier the vehicle, the harder the engine must work and more energy is needed.

Lithium-air batteries weigh much less, since they use the surrounding air rather than a solid or liquid conductor. As a result, more can be installed in a battery pack and an electric vehicle can drive farther before recharging. They have the theoretical potential, according to Ars Technica, of up to 10 times the energy density per unit of mass compared to that of lithium-ion batteries. It could potentially cure “range anxiety,” or the barrier of drastically decreased range in electric cars compared to gas-powered counterparts.

First breakthroughs

Unfortunately, lithium-air batteries have heretofore been hampered by rapid decay of the components as a reaction with oxygen. Only a few charge-discharge cycles have been possible until recently. Aside from the team in Scotland, another team involving researchers from universities in South Korea, Japan and Italy were able to create a lithium-air cell with an electrolyte, the compound that conducts the electricity, that has a stable reaction with air at room temperature. That battery, just as the one in Scotland, was able to go through 100 charge-discharge cycles, with nearly no discernible voltage drop.

IBM, according to Gizmag, announced in 2009 that it was working on Project 500, a lithium-air battery that could give an electric car a range of up to 500 miles. By comparison, a Nissan Leaf manages about 100, and a Tesla Model S can get up to 300, with the optional larger battery pack. IBM plans to have a working prototype out by 2013.

However, all successes have so far been in laboratories. It still has to be made into a full scale battery pack and proven to work and also be safe for use before they are installed in cars. IBM projects they could be available by 2020 to 2030.

Sources

New York Times

Gizmag

Ars Technica

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