Are Lithium Air Batteries the Future of Electric Vehicles?

By · June 01, 2010

Lithium Air Researcher

Researchers at Argonne Labs are in the early stages of developing lithium air batteries, which according to some scientists, could be as much as 100 times more powerful than current electric vehicle battery packs.

With the first wave of plug-in cars set to hit the market later this year, there is still uncertainty as to whether consumers will balk at price tag and range limitations of early-model electric vehicles. Both of these drawbacks can be traced to the shortcomings of the current generation of lithium ion batteries, which have made huge strides in the last decade but are still not capable of meeting the needs of some drivers.

But what if lithium batteries could be lighter, cheaper and at least five times more powerful than those that will power cars like the Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, or Nissan Leaf?

Argonne Laboratories says that lithium air batteries could be all of these things and more, and it's using an $8.8 million government grant to develop them.

As a technology, lithium air is still in its infancy, but clean-tech start-ups, universities and carmakers all over the world are racing to figure out whether it is indeed the future electric mobility. Most experts say that the battery is at least a decade away (possibly two,) and there are several major hurdles to bringing down costs and ensuring that the technology will hold up to real world challenges. Still, lithium air's promise is intriguing enough that General Motors and several other major automakers are all believed to be studying it.

Lithium Air Graphic

A regular lithium ion battery works by moving ions from a carbon anode through an electrolyte (usually lithium salts,) to a solid metal oxide cathode. Lithium air batteries use a lithium anode and a porous carbon cathode, allowing the lithium ions to move freely through an unlimited supply of oxygen. The difference, in layman's terms, is that a lithium air battery “breathes,” allowing its capacity to be limited only by how much lithium is contained in its the anode. This results in a battery that is smaller, lighter, and hopefully cheaper. It could also mean electric vehicles that are more powerful, carrying ranges of 500 miles or more.

The federal government is very bullish on future battery technologies like lithium air, and recently awarded an additional $34 million to advanced research on auto batteries.

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