Why IBM's Betting on Lithium Air Batteries: Nanotech and Supercomputers

Usually when IBM catches our eye with a cleantech play these days, it’s related to the smart grid: Big Blue has developed a variety of software to give utilities more intelligence on the power grid, and the computing giant’s Energy & Utilities chief, Guido Bartels, ranks among our top 15 smart grid influencers.

But in June IBM launched an ambitious battery project with several partners (including national labs), with a goal to commercialize an experimental battery technology — lithium metal-air — and to achieve at least 10 times the energy density of today’s batteries. And this week, the company is hosting a gathering of some of the world’s top battery researchers, auto companies and others involved with batteries for electric cars, to talk about moving beyond lithium-ion, the battery technology of choice for mass market electric cars now in the pipeline at companies including Nissan, General Motors and Tesla Motors.

So what’s IBM doing with lithium air — a risky technology that uses “highly flammable lithium metal to react with oxygen in the air,” as Technology Review explained recently. According to Winfried Wilcke, Senior Manager of Nanoscale Science & Technology, and Program Director of Silicon Valley Projects for IBM’s Almaden Research Center, the project plugs into IBM’s expertise in two main areas: nanotechnology and supercomputers.

Lithium-air batteries will require “really sophisticated nanostructures” in order to keep water out and let oxygen in, says Wilcke. IBM has been working on its nanotech research for years, particularly in micro electronic mechanical systems. One of the keys to cracking the lithium-air battery code could also be supercomputers said Wilcke (they’ll be used to model potential catalysts) — also one of IBM’s specialties.

Even with IBM’s work, the battery technology is still a long shot. According to Dalhousie University’s Jeff Dahn, who spoke today at Almaden, “rechargeable lithium air…will be very very challenging. I wouldn’t bet the farm on this, but it has to be explored.”

IBM now has a team of 6-10 people working on the project, and it’s growing. Wicke said he expects the basic science questions to be answered within three years, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars (for all the partners combined — IBM’s own financial contribution remains “in flux”).

Why lithium air? “It’s the only system that has a chance to be as good as gasoline” and make a significant dent in transportation fuel, according to Wilcke. But it’s far from proven, and “lithium ion is not going to go away anytime soon,” he said. “There could be big boulders and pebbles flying in our face, but we see a path.”

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