By on April 20, 2012

If you want to see the future of the electric car, you have to go back a hundred years. In 1900, over a quarter of all new automobiles ran on battery. City cars? Around a third of the buggies of Chicago, Boston, and New York City were electric. They were decimated by cars running on smelly and flammable gasoline, because people wanted to drive fast and long distances. Hundred years later, little has changed. Ten to 20 years from now, something might change.

“Electric cars today typically can travel only about 100 miles on current battery technology, called lithium-ion (LIB). LIB technology stands little chance of being light enough to travel 500 miles on a single charge and cheap enough to be practical for a typical family car. This problem is creating a significant barrier to electric vehicle adoption.”

This is a quote from a group of researchers at IBM, and it is putting the problem mildly. In an electric car, the devils called cost, range, and weight are fighting each other, and nobody is winning. The IBM researchers think they know the way out. They are working on a battery that has the same energy density as gasoline.

In other words: A battery the size of a current gas tank will get us as far as a current tank of gas.

IBM’s lithium-air battery literally pulls energy out of thin air. It borrows oxygen from the air. Combined with lithium, electrical energy is created. When the battery is recharged, the borrowed oxygen is being paid back to the atmosphere. The battery can be much lighter, because it uses air as its most important component.

IBM’s research group is called “Battery 500”. The goal is a battery that can power a car for 500 miles. The researchers hope their battery will be ready “some time between 2020 and 2030.”

(Hat tip to Rick.)

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28 Comments on “This Battery Runs On Thin Air...”


  • avatar

    Seems like Mazda was demo’ing Zinc-Air EVs back in the GM Impact era. I’m sure it was cost prohibitive, but other than a different element (Lithium instead of Zinc) what’s new here?

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      Yes, but zinc air batteries are non-rechargeable, which makes them neigh on to useless for an EV, or a cell phone, or a laptop computer, or any application that doesn’t take AA batteries. See:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinc%E2%80%93air_battery

      The lithium-air battery claims to be rechargeable, though, so it might be a fix for the limitations of the zinc-air battery.

  • avatar
    pgcooldad

    I wish they would qualify that with the weight of the car they plan on powering for 500 miles.

    • 0 avatar
      thirty-three

      Weight doesn’t matter if the battery energy density is the same as gasoline. If the car can carry enough gasoline to travel 500 miles, than it can carry the equivalent in these new batteries to travel the same distance.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    Personally, I cant wait. Electric engines are stupid simple things, no fuss, no muss. It was a revelation when i first discovered electric lawn mowers. They just go. Even carrying around the cords, it was far less bother than gas ones.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, on a small lot perhaps, but I can cut our lawn a lot faster with a ICE powered mower (or a hand reel if the grass is short) than I can with the electric mower. With a gas powered mower you can go where you want to go without worrying about where the extension cord is. You want to turn left, you turn left. With a corded mower, you have to plan all of your motions so you don’t run over the cord. If I want to do both front and back I have to move the extension cord. Then, once I’m done, I have to tie/coil the cord back up. With gasoline, you pull start it and start cutting with no interruptions.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        I too, just got rid of my gas mower for an electric. I got tired of waiting for the gas mower to die, so I just sold it on craigslist.

        I do have a small lawn. The battery is just enough to mow my lawn. It wouldn’t be the right tool for a big lawn, but it works for me!

        My wife always hated the gasoline smell from our old mower, and hated that I smelled like exhaust when I came in. Add in having to get and transport fuel, keeping fuel fresh, and pouring it from our gas can into the mower without spilling a drip, and the fact that my electric mower starts up in 2-seconds every time without pulling a cord, and the electric mower is a big win in my situation. I come in smelling like freshly cut grass (and only freshly cut grass), having completed some work that she didn’t want to do, and you can guess how much better *my* life since ditching the gas mower.

        Just because an electric mower wouldn’t work for you doesn’t mean that it isn’t a big win for some of us.

        I currently own exactly two gasoline engines. One in the Prius, one in the Escape. I’m hoping to replace both vehicles with ones where using gasoline engine is optional.

        Gasoline really is smelly, nasty, volatile stuff. Most people haven’t analyzed the clever grounding that gas stations have that keeps them from going all Hindenburg on our asses. But, as soon as you start refueling anything that doesn’t fit into the gas station infrastructure (aircraft, transfer tanks, large tractors, etc), all of these issues, and the necessity of running ground wires everywhere, come to the fore. My battery-powered electric lawn mower isn’t exactly maintenance free, and it does require some work (taking the battery in to the garage and charging it), but these issues are far more self-contained than with the gasoline yard equipment I’ve used. I’d love to make the same tradeoffs with my daily-driver car.

      • 0 avatar

        You people with small lawns would probably do fine with non-motorized push mowers. I have one, and it works fine. Go gas, no cord, and hardly any noise. It sounds like crickets chirping.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        @David Holzman: “You people with small lawns would probably do fine with non-motorized push mowers. I have one, and it works fine. Go gas, no cord, and hardly any noise. It sounds like crickets chirping.”

        I have one of those, too, and it’s a great tool.

        But, it doesn’t do everything. It’s great for “everyday” mowing, but if I get behind on the mowing, or if I need to grind up something, or make changes to the parts of the lawn I do or don’t mow, then a real power mower is very necessary.

        So, I went from having a reel mower that’s backed up by a gas mower, to having a reel mower that’s backed up by an electric mower. The novelty of the electric mower hasn’t worn off yet, though, so I’ve been using it a lot lately.

        BTW, when my unpowered reel mower is the right tool for the job, it’s about the same amount of effort as using a power mower. It’s just that much lighter.

    • 0 avatar
      DannyZRC

      I was so glad to get rid of my piece of crap electric mower for a gas one.

      I still have an electric trimmer, and every time I have to use it I’m reminded of how much worse it is to use than my mower.

      I don’t even have a large yard, and coiling and uncoiling the cord took as long as the mowing itself, and the electric mower couldn’t cope with any amount of growth. I even melted a wiring harness once ;p

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      How’d we get a thread on lawn care equipment? :D

      I have gas and electric versions of mowers, weedwhackers, and chain saws. All are great tools, and I use them regularly. But they each have different strenghts and weaknesses, and I pick which one to use for a given job accordingly.

      • 0 avatar
        moawdtsi

        For those of you that can’t stand your gas mower, you should buy a Honda self-propelled, especially one with a blade clutch. Yes they are $700 new, but they are effortless to use and ultra reliable, mine is going on 20 years old with no real problems. The blade clutch will let you walk around the mower and pick up trash or move something in the yard without killing the mower.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        @steve65: +100

        @moawdtsi: But why would I want to stay with a technology that’s worse for my purposes, even if the particular incarnation of it that you suggest is less annoying?

        Fuel-handling was one of the biggest problems with my gas mower, as well as the odor. I grew up on a small farm, and I know how to handle fuel — but it just wasn’t worth the effort to fetch and handle the fuel, much less the mess or the odor and the noise. The electric mower solved both the fuel-handling and odor problems, and greatly reduced the noise, and my new mower can start/stop the blade fast and with minimal effort.

        I wholeheartedly acknowledge that my electric mower isn’t the right tool for every job. The small hobby farm where I grew up is one the places where my existing mower wouldn’t be up to the task.

        I’m not missing the hassles that come with the gas mower, and I’m pretty sure that the gas-powered mower that you suggest would be less well matched to my particular circumstances than the battery-electric mower that I currently own. Changing back to old tech just wouldn’t get me anything on my little suburban.

      • 0 avatar
        Steve65

        I also have a 10-foot gas-powered pole saw. I shopped and would much have preferred an electric, but ultimately all the ones I found had the same crippling flaw eliminating them from consideration, so I went with a gas-powered one. And I’m betting nobody (unless you did the same comparison shopping I did) can guess what that flaw was (hint: it has nothing to do with the power cord).

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      Or if you have my yard, even a gas mower isn’t enough to get it done in a day. So if I’m going to do it over a couple days regardless, electric wouldn’t be much of a problem.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Sounds like a game changer. Maybe it will put just a little fear in the oil cartel, but probably not given the long lead time.
    There is still a lot of improvement to be had from current type of Li battery. A $15-20 commuter car with a 150 mile range would be attaactive to many as a second car that could actually pay for itself in savings over a similarily priced ICE.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      “Maybe it will put just a little fear in the oil cartel, but probably not given the long lead time.”

      For OPEC, probably, but they’re interests have never really aligned with the interests of the USA.

      Many of the energy companies in the USA also sell coal and natural gas. Electric cars are likely to run off of these fuels, at least in part, for a long time. These companies would probably love to see an increase in the demand for natural gas right about now (oil prices are very high and natural gas prices are very low at the moment).

      I’m not saying that they won’t fight change with political money, but I am saying that good EV batteries doesn’t necessarily doom their business, or even hurt the bottom line of the more nimble companies. I’d love to power the electric car that I hope to buy with renewable energy made at my house, but most people probably won’t.

  • avatar
    DannyZRC

    Battery is a misnomer, reversible fuel cell may be better.

    I’m curious, since they’re hanging on to the oxidized fuel for later recycling, how heavy does the battery get as it’s spent?

    Food for thought.

  • avatar

    they have the right idea. I want to know what’s in the fine print, though.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    Does anyone know how long it takes to recharge one of these? 500 miles range is a big improvement but, if takes more than 15 minutes to recharge then I’ll keep one gas powered car for our yearly trip to Florida (1200 miles).

  • avatar
    Rada

    Soon to follow – turbocharged batteries, which would be actually awesome.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Availability between 2020 and 2030 – this is like reading Popular Science. Back in 1970, we were going to be driving turbine- or atomic-powered cars by 1985.

    If battery technology can only get us 500-mile range by then, EVs will be dead and the market will have moved on to something else. Consumers won’t be so patient.

    Of course, such technology leaps are rarely associated with price, which is anyone’s guess. I smell a taxpayer-funded subsidy coming when this is ready for a production vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      Fossil fuels are finite. At the moment, it appears that oil is more finite than coal or natural gas and, as near as a lot of people can tell, we’re close to the halfway point on the oil supply.

      Your comment suggests that you don’t agree? That we’ll have a steady stream of oil forever?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    It won’t happen. Lithium is far too dangerous to handle as simple element. It is a chemical cousin of sodium and potassium. As you may recall from high school chemistry, they will not only burn in air, but if they are in contact with water they will reduce the water, becoming an oxide and freeing the hydrogen and a lot of heat, which will create a tremendous opportunity for an explosion.

    Get past that set of issues and there is the fuel cell system that will turn the chemical reaction into electricity. Hydrogen fuel cells rely on platinum catalysts. Platinum is more expensive than gold and is rarer. Of course the Lithium is a lot less common than coal, oil and natural gas.

    Then there are recharging problems, the first one being that all recharging is limited by the inbound flow of current. The fundamental law is that Watts = Amps x Volts. Therefore, an ordinary household line of 120 volts at 15 Amps, can charge a battery at a maximum rate of 1.8 KWh/h. If an electric car requires 1 KWh to travel 5 miles (and 3 is more like it), then you are charging at the rate of 9 mph. A dryer line 240V 30A, can make road speed — 36 mph. but, even that line would need almost 14 hrs. to charge a 100 KWh battery. Home at 6 p.m. for dinner — don’t leave for work until after 8 a.m. nice schedule huh?

    It would also be nice to find out how they can reduce the lithium Oxide to metallic Lithium with out running industrial temperatures, or risking fire and explosion.

    Electric car people. Give up. You are wasting our time and the governments money. You lost out a century ago. It is over. Go home.


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