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IBM Power

Lithium Air Batteries Get Boost From IBM and DOE 240

coondoggie writes "The Department of Energy and IBM are serious about developing controversial lithium air batteries capable of powering a car for 500 miles on a single charge – a huge increase over current plug-in batteries that have a range of about 40 to 100 miles, the DOE said. The agency said 24 million hours of supercomputing time out of a total of 1.6 billion available hours at Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories will be used by IBM and a team of researchers from those labs and Vanderbilt University to design new materials required for a lithium air battery."
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Lithium Air Batteries Get Boost From IBM and DOE

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  • by samurphy21 ( 193736 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @07:46PM (#30927448) Homepage

    Because this is a game changing technology, if it pans out.

    • Patents? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well, because the DOE is bankrolling their computer time, does that mean the results will not be patent-encumbered?
      Or are we in for more NiMH [] crap?

      • Well, besides devoting 0.024/1.6 = 1.5% of the time on one supercomputer at one national lab on this problem, how else is the DOE serious about this? And after the 1.6 billion hours, does the computer self destruct? Just curious. Science reporters love big numbers, don't they?
    • Yes, if it pans out and is semi-affordable it would be great. I can't really reasonably do an all electric now because my commute one way is 38 miles with no place to plug in at work. With a little bit longer trip on the way home (picking the kids up from school, etc.) it is over 80 miles before being home to charge. Even 200 miles on a charge would make this more attractive, although some folks would still want to have some sort of "battery swap" stations along the interstates so that they could take longe
      • by maxume ( 22995 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:11PM (#30927712)

        "Affordable" isn't going to be anytime soon, at least not for comparison shoppers. Even at $5 a gallon, a decent sedan will go 100,000 miles on $20,000 of fuel (and neither of those assumptions are particularly aggressive, that $20,000 might get you closer to 250,000 miles).

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Rei ( 128717 )

          Well, since the average driver drives about 12,000 miles a year, and the average car is on the road for nearly two decades....

          Sure, an individual owner doesn't keep it that long, but what that means is that your depreciation will be lower, since the vehicle remains cheap to operate. Once the luxury of a luxury vehicle wears off, or the style of a stylish vehicle becomes dated, you don't have much left. But efficiency is always a seller. A Hummer doesn't cost that much more than a Prius, but it depreciate

          • and the average car is on the road for nearly two decades....

            Really? You remember seeing a lot of 1985 Corollas back in 2005?

            I'm not sure where you got that statistic. Maybe your cars have stayed on the road for two decades, but I don't see that many 1990 cars on the road these days.

            Do you live in Arizona or something? Here in Chicago, I don't see that many 20 year-old cars.

      • by Korin43 ( 881732 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:11PM (#30928322) Homepage
        If you're looking to reduce your environment impact, I'd guess that living closer to work will have a much larger effect than buying a different car.
    • absolutely (Score:4, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:05PM (#30927658)

      Absolutely a game changer. In fact, I got a real charge out of reading about them. The current methods are terminal. I was much more depressed before reading about these things. I think the technology really has potential. Hopefully they will cell, but they might have to amp up the advertising.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I am usually resistant to change, but your enthusiasm has transformed my thinking. I don't want to draw any hasty conclusions, but this has the capacity to lead to good things.

      • Thank you Mr AC, this thread was a little short on jokes. I was shocked. It's good to see you swimming against the current.
    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:14PM (#30927766) Homepage

      Lithium-air is, IMHO, one of the least promising upcoming battery techs. It's really more like a fuel cell, and to be blunt, fuel cells suck. By that, I mean:

        * Expensive per watt
        * Short lifespans
        * Inefficient

      There are many, many promising next-gen battery techs other than li-air. Here's just a couple of my favorites.

      Lithium-sulfur: This has long been worked on, but only just recently one of its big problems has been worked around. It offers great energy density, but some of the intermediary reaction products -- various lithium polysulfides -- are rather soluble. They'd migrate across the membrane and precipitate out on the other side, being rendered permanently useless to the reaction and thus aging the cells very quickly. Older solutions to try to prevent this caused dramatically lower energy density. The latest technique involves wicking the sulfur into the pores of mesoporous carbon and then functionalizing the outside of the carbon with polyethylene glycol to keep the hydrophobic polysulfides inside when they form. The longevity improvements were amazing, without sacrificing energy density. We're talking that when they deliberately chose a worst-case solvent, one that's really good at dissolving polysulfides, the traditional Li-S cell lost 96% of its sulfur in 30 cycles while theirs only lost 25%.

      Nickel-lithium: It is, quite literally, a hybrid NiMH/li-ion battery -- a traditional NiMH cathode that can hold a tremendous amount of lithium, and a lithium metal anode (almost obscene anode energy density). That's normally impossible, since you want to run a NiMH battery with an aqueous electrolyte and your various lithium-based cells with an organic electrolyte. They do both -- they use a new tech called a LISICON membrane to keep the two different electrolytes apart but allow lithium ions across. An additional problem with li metal anodes is that dendrites tend to form that rupture the membrane -- but LISICON membranes are a rigid ceramic that resists dendrite damage.

      Digital quantum battery: This is my favorite, because it comes straight out of left field. It's really a type of capacitor. Now, capacitors normally hold a lot less energy than batteries; if the voltage gets too high, you get dielectric breakdown, it arcs across, and your energy is lost. But at very tiny scales, current must move as quanta. So if instead of a single big capacitor, you lithographically print an array of nanoscale capacitors, all of the sudden you can make it so that you essentially can't get dielectric breakdown. In fact, you can store so much energy that the stresses become so great that it's best to use a carbon nanotube for one of the electrodes in each nano-capacitor. :)

      And even ignoring next-gen battery techs, there is still *huge* range for improvement in li-ion. In particular, for the cathodes, my favorites are layered manganese cathodes which alternate long-life forms and high energy density forms of magnanese oxides to get both properties; and fluorinated metal cathodes. For the anodes, there's many kinds of tin and particularly silicon anodes out there that store nearly an order of magnitude more lithium than conventional graphite anodes. Silicon anode li-ion cells are just this month starting to hit the market. The tech has finally matured to the point where their longevity is sufficient.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by neiras ( 723124 )

        Parent is Informative. Mods?

        This post is Insightful. Or at least Funny, in a sad, "iPad" kind of way.

      • I'm not really sure what you said, but it sounds pretty awesome
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by samurphy21 ( 193736 )

        The latest technique involves wicking the sulfur into the pores of mesoporous carbon and then functionalizing the outside of the carbon with polyethylene glycol to keep the hydrophobic polysulfides inside when they form.

        I got a little bit hard right there.

      • by Sabriel ( 134364 )

        Rei, I'd be interested to see your response to viking80's comment [] further down the page - I'll quote it here:

        Gasoline at 50MJ/kg is pretty much the most dense energy storage possible in this universe excluding nuclear energy. (Hydrogen is 150MJ/kg, and might beat gas, but it needs to be in liquid form. Same range anyway) It exclude the weigh of the oxygen as well.

        This is kind of a fundamental limit as to how much energy can be stored in *any* system using potential energy of the electric field of matter. Th

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Rei ( 128717 )

          I did respond to it. What he wrote was complete pseudoscientific nonsense.

      • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @11:20PM (#30929194) Homepage

        Lithium-air is, IMHO, one of the least promising upcoming battery techs.

        Uh-huh. But between this and all the alternatives you mention, which would Michael Jordan endorse?

        That's right.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by GooberToo ( 74388 )

        Lithium-air is, IMHO, one of the least promising upcoming battery techs. It's really more like a fuel cell, and to be blunt, fuel cells suck. By that, I mean:

        * Expensive per watt
        * Short lifespans
        * Inefficient

        There are many, many promising next-gen battery techs other than li-air. Here's just a couple of my favorites.

        You seem very knowledgeable. Which is to say, you've easily surpassed my ignorant bullshit detector on the subject matter. ;) Perhaps you'd care to speculate, wildly even, as to why big names such as IBM and the DOE would will be willing to heavily invest so many cycles into Lithium-air if the base technology sucks so badly. Does the fact that they're willing to invest in this technology hint they have some significant reasons to believe this technology trumps existing efforts? Or is it possible the applica

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Rei ( 128717 )

          It's the same reason why companies invested in fuel cells -- a long-term hail mary pass. Certainly li-air beats all of the techs mentioned (with the possible exception of digital quantum batteries) in terms of energy density. But it has huge challenges that may or may not be able to be met. Probably not. And yes, there is (or at least was) little patent coverage in that arena.

          Also note that batteries aren't only about electric cars. This is IBM we're talking about here. Think laptops and cell phones:

  • For a battery of this capacity what kinds of charging time are we talking here? I know that the standard electric cars are something around 6-8 hours. To maintain an 8 hour charge time for something like that the current draw is going to have to be pretty darn high. I don't know if charging a car like this is realistic. Of course, you wouldn't need to give it a full charge every night for most people.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Full charge of a Tesla Roadster, which has a 250 mile range, takes 3.5 hours on a 240 volt circuit at 70 amps. So yes, at quickest supported charging rate, the amperage is quite substantial. Many residential homes in the US have 100 amp service. 200 amp service is probably a good idea for Roadster owners. Charging a lithium-air battery pack with double the capacity might take 7 hours. But it could vary considerably from that guess because battery charge times differ depending on the chemistry and nanos

    • Re:Recharge time? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:22PM (#30928404) Homepage

      8 hour charge for how many miles? I don't know about you, but my daily commute isn't 600 miles.

      It's level 1 or level 2 charging at home, and level 3 or higher for long trips. And that's what it's going to be for probably the next century. It doesn't make sense to do it any other way. You only need fast charges when you're taking long trips, so you need fast charging stations available on the road. Around home, you want slow charging, which is gentler on the batteries (and, not to mention, the grid), as well as being more efficient.

      By the way, for those who are curious:

      Level 1: ~110V, 20A or less. US standard: SAE J1772 or the ever-common NEMA 5-15 plug.
      Level 2: ~220V, 80A or less. US standard: SAE J1772. European standard: Mennekes, based on IEC 60309.
      Level 3: ~440V, up to "hundreds" of amps. No official standard, but the TESCO connector seems to be becoming dominant.

      The most powerful EV charger I'm aware of is an 800kW charger created by Aerovironment for TARDEC. That's ~800V and ~1000A, if I recall correctly. It's about the size of four vending machines pushed together.

    • Re:Recharge time? (Score:4, Informative)

      by scdeimos ( 632778 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @10:38PM (#30928982)

      It all depends on the discharge/charge ratings for the cells. We regularly punish Li cells in hotliner electric gliders.

      For example, a 1,000mAH Li-Ion cell with a 5C charge rating can be safely charged at 5,000mA from near flat in 10 to 12 minutes. The charge ratings tend to go down as cell sizes increase, though, due to ventilation issues - you just can't dissipate the heat from the battery packs quickly enough unless you involve forced-flow systems, and if it gets too hot you'll get a runaway situation and BOOM.

  • Overstated (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:09PM (#30927692)

    capable of powering a car for 500 miles on a single charge - a huge increase over current plug-in batteries that have a range of about 40 to 100 miles

    Current plug-in vehicles? Like, what a Chevy Volt or a hacked Prius? Nonsense. Try a Tesla Roadster, with a single charge range of 250 miles. Lithium-air might double the range then. But a factor of 5? No.

    I do have one question though. How are lithium-ion batteries affected by increasing cell size? The Tesla Roadster currently uses a ridiculous number of very small cells in its pack, in a move that looks dictated by ridiculous patent licensing terms limiting cell sizes to those suitable for laptops in an effort to prevent the existence of something like the Roadster. That's what it looks like. But is there a technical reason to limit cell size? There is surprisingly little information available about how the performance of lithium cells change as they get physically larger (or smaller).

    • Re:Overstated (Score:5, Informative)

      by dragonsomnolent ( 978815 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:39PM (#30927984) Homepage
      I had read once that they were using the same technology as laptops so that they could let laptop battery manufacturers do the heavy lifting on battery R&D (a sensible approach I suppose) and after reading thier pdf about the batteries it seems to hint that they use them because they are cheap, standard (same ones used in laptop batteries), and should one fail, it doesn't affect the entire system as much overall (there is no mention of fire damage however). I'm sorry that I can't answer your question regarding increase or decrease of performance as size increases. But it doesn't seem Tesla is using small cells to avoid patent licensing issues (after all, Wikipedia indicates that they license their AC Motors in the Roadster)
    • Re:Overstated (Score:5, Informative)

      by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:30PM (#30928448) Homepage

      The person who responded to you first is indeed correct. It's not about patents; you're mixing up this with the old EV1 debacle. The Roadster uses 18650-format cobalt/graphite li-ion cells, which are already in mass production. They did this for obvious reasons; when they started out, the phosphates and spinels that everyone else is now using weren't really available.

      As for fire, which the previous person commented on, each cell is contained within its own can that's designed to isolate failures to just that cell. It's a pretty complex pack indeed. Future EVs won't have such a complex pack. It's doubtful that even the Model S will, even though it's still going to be based on cobalt tech (that's what Tesla has experience with, after all -- and despite all its downsides, it is quite energy dense)

      If you're curious as to how the pack is structured, there are 11 "sheets", each one made of 9 "bricks", and each of those made of 69 cells. Each of the cells in a brick are wired in parallel. The failure of one, therefore, has relatively little impact on the performance of the brick. The bricks and sheets are wired in series. Each sheet monitors the performance of all of its bricks and does load balancing on them, as well as logging failures. It's a pretty impressive piece of engineering.

  • Well (Score:2, Interesting)

    by UPZ ( 947916 )
    If it works out, who gets the patents - IBM or US Govt?
    • Can the US Gov hold patents? Is that legal?

      If anything, I'd say it will either be unencumbered by patents (some open license format) in the best case, or IBM will get some kind of limited patent as part of their "cut."

  • Fingers Crossed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <> on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:13PM (#30927750)

    Energy-dense storage media have been the missing link in a lot of relatively clean energy generation schemes. For example, both solar and wind power are challenged by the need to store power for when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

  • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:46PM (#30928050)

    Tbh with the Tesla breaking 500km the main obstacle for Electric Vehicles is no longer storage capacity of the batteries but rather the recharge time and battery price. LiFeP batteries have short recharge times ( 5 minuets or so ) and are starting to come down in price, so the big issue right now is designing an electric interface that can safely deliver the 200kW or so that would be needed to charge the a Tesla-equivalent 50kWh battery pack in less than 15 minutes. The standard proposed in Europe supports up to 43kW so there's some way to go still, but theoretically if you just developed the EU's proposal to support 100kW then using 2 cables would get you down to a 15min charge time.

    It's a bit of an engineering problem to make such an interface safe for the average commuter to use, but it seems to me it is now fairly clear that batteries will be future energy carrier for personal cars. Hydrogen no longer has any advantages over batteries since it is has a low energy efficiency and even worse refueling problems than electrics, not to mention the infrastructure challenges. There is still no good way to produce biofuel at the scales required, and even if you could you would have to set up a new infrastructure from scratch, and they would likely still result in more pollution than the batteries. With fast charging batteries on the market now flywheels have also lost their advantage of being able to "charge" very rapidly and their low energy density and high cost makes them unlikely.

    Basically eventually battery price will come down enough, and the Oil price will rise high enough, that electric vehicles will be cheaper than petrol. It's now just a matter of time, maybe just a few decades, before the majority of cars produced will be electric.

    • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:00PM (#30928228) Homepage Journal

      But how are you going to distribute the power? My house gets 100A at 250V so thats 25000 watts. I doubt the cable in the street can supply that to each house at the same time (car charging time) when the electric stoves are cooking dinner as well. For 100kw we need four times that so at best we need to double the diameter of every cable running along every street and push back higher peak current requirements into the distribution system as well.

      I think we are going to need to charge more for high current delivery on top of high energy delivery to encourage slow overnight charging, otherwise the networks and generators won't be able to cope with the demand.

      • never underestimate the construction capability of people motivated by profit and funded by capitalists
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by TubeSteak ( 669689 )

          never underestimate the construction capability of people motivated by profit and funded by capitalists

          Are these the same type of capitalists taking a 24 million computer-hour handout from the government?

      • I think the parent was talking about 15 minutes at a "gas station". Slower feeds would indeed remain appropriate for homes.

        A more distributed system would be better and easily adapted in the current infrastructure. Imagine each parking spot in a mall with a plug where you are charged for the energy received while you shop (like Red Box for electricity instead of dvds). Similar for places of employment (cost could be factored into salaries). A high-watt short time facility would only be necessary for long
      • If you live in the US the Electric line that supplies your home is probably a 7kv but stepdown isn't much of an issue as I understand most of the power lines in the US that are modern (defined as last 30 years) are sized sufficiently to support up to 45kv with the transmission lines upwards of 100kv. At those voltages millions of amps can be delivered safely to the transformer that feeds your home. The problem isn't going to be distribution, it's going to be generation.

        The annual energy usage of automobiles

        • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:41PM (#30928534) Homepage

          The annual energy usage of automobiles is more than the current electricity usage in the US.

          True but grossly misleading. :) The average car has a tank-to-wheel average efficiency in normal combined city/highway driving of about 20%. Your average li-ion electric vehicle has a plug-to-wheel average efficiency under the same conditions of about 85%.

          The reality is that almost no new generating capacity is needed [].

        • by shermo ( 1284310 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @10:05PM (#30928712)

          Coal plants can and do back off their generation at times of low demand. Typically they can go down to about 50-60% capacity without problems. You're correct in the general concept that they don't switch off and on quickly, but they certainly don't generate at max capacity 24/7.

        • by cdrguru ( 88047 )

          When was the last large power plant built in the US? I think it was in the 1970s. NIMBY rules all here and we are going to see major brownouts and electricity rationing before you see a big power plant built. Coal or nuclear are about it, with wind and solar suitable for adding some extra around the edges.

          Just about every power plant that has been built in the last 40 years or so is a natural gas fired "peaker" plant designed to operate only in times of extreme load. Of course, they are all running 24x7

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        And you feel the need to charge at that rate *at home* why....? Do you have a 500 mile commute?

        I only ever need rapid refill capability in my vehicle when taking trips, but perhaps your life is different.

        • In fact I see little use for fast charging, except as an excuse to keep petrol (gas) stations in business. I plug my phone, laptop and music player in at night and I would be fine doing that with a car. The post I responded to discussed fast charging and ways to make that safe for normal people to use. I took that to be discussing charging in the home.

          Personally I think we will see most urban commuters charging overnight at home, and some in high rise car parks. For long highway trips petrol stations on hig

      • That's the secret Achilles heel of electric cars - and one that the electric car industry and their boosters have been steadfastly trying to pretend doesn't exist. Widespread usage of electric cars is going to require trillions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and strain our existing generation and transport systems.

        • But only if we insist on fast charging at any time of day. And that requirement is a hang over from the way we manage petrol powered cars. Once we get used to plugging the car in when we are home (which is most of the time for most people) and charging slowly, then the load on the network should be less of an issue. Negotiation between the supply and the load will help as well.

    • The difficulty of delivering such a large amount of power in such a short time would be bypassed if the battery packs were designed to be easily swapped in and out.

    • Only if you ignore the worldwide copper shortage...

  • ...But what exactly are they planning to accomplish with a supercomputer? What exactly are they looking for? Can they somehow brute-force search different models looking for ones that work?

    And why can't they use a cloud instead? LiAir@Home FTW!

  • Last I heard was lithium was a precious metal--and 50% of the world's sources were in one country (So Am).

    Also, last I heard was precious meant expensive and rare...
    • by mmontour ( 2208 )

      Last I heard was lithium was a precious metal--and 50% of the world's sources were in one country (So Am).

      Also, last I heard was precious meant expensive and rare...

      Some quick googling suggests a price around $6000 per ton of lithium carbonate, which would contain about 100 kg of lithium. So call it $60 per kg.

      I would consider silver to be the entry-level "precious" metal. It's currently trading around $17 per troy oz, or about $550 per kg.

      Therefore your girlfriend won't be very impressed when you give her that lithium engagement ring.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        She'll be particularly unimpressed when it turns her finger black. And then the finger falls off.

    • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @09:41PM (#30928532)


      Lithium is plentiful, you can mine it from seawater indefinitely for about $60 per kg. It's just that some countries can supply lithium at smaller prices.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by John Hasler ( 414242 )

        > It's just that some countries can supply lithium at smaller prices.

        But only slightly smaller. Lithium is fairly uniformly distributed throughout the Earth's crust. It is, of course, cheapest to mine it where the concentration is a bit higher than average, but as those concentrations are not all that high compared to the average the countries that own them aren't going to get rich from them. If they try to jack up the price whoever they are trying to hold up will just start mining it at home.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by John Hasler ( 414242 )

      > Last I heard was lithium was a precious metal...

      You last heard wrong. It goes for around $100/kg, less than 1/4 the price of silver.

      > ...50% of the world's sources were in one country (So Am).

      Chile seems to currently have the largest proven reserves, but lithium is not very rare (similar in concentration in the Earth's crust to nickel and lead) and is widely distributed.

  • I'm holding out for 1000 miles per charge, and no, I am not being facetious. I think THAT will be the real game changer, and here's why:

    One thousand miles is pretty much the limit on what you can drive in one day - that's getting on the Interstate and just rolling, with minimal stops, for about 12 hours. I don't know about anybody else, but I find that's pretty much the limit for me.

    Now, let us consider a car with 400 mile per charge range - that's about what most gas or diesel cars can get on a tank of fue

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp