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


Usually when IBM (s 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 (s NSANY), General Motors (s GM) 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.”



We don’t need lithium-air to be competitive with fossil fuels since we’ll be running out of competitively priced fossil fuels shortly, at our present consumption rates. This is likely to happen gradually over the course of the next several decades – and is in fact happening right now. Furthermore, fossil fuels are aggravating our climate system by injecting greenhouse gasses such as CO2 and methane into out atmosphere. Transitioning away from a fossil fuel based economy looks to be necessary.

All-electric vehicles can work for a significant portion of Americans right now. With enough cash infusion and incentives built into policy (the fossil fuel industry is morbidly obese with subsidies), the increased cash flow will bring plug-in costs down. This is just one way we can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. This policy of encouraging people to purchase plug-ins has to be implemented along with a policy which encourages the use of nuclear power, solar power, geothermal, wind power, and all of the many various alternatives presently available to meet our energy needs. This will happen slowly and gradually as our people and our politicians come to understand the need for it. Some communities will do it more rapidly than others. We have to make compromises in our lifestyle and economy and, thus, understanding the need for all of this is the backbone of the entire process.

If we accounted for supply limitations and emissions of greenhouse gases and pollution and national healthcare costs in response to these emitted particulates then coal and gasoline and even natural gas would be quite a bit more expensive than they currently are. That would have the corresponding effect of making alternatives more competitive. Wouldn’t that be appropriate? Or is there an ulterior motive in the industry, or atleast a policy of inaction, to prevent such accounting from happening? Aren’t you more likely to keep your job in the fossil fuel industry so long as it’s acceptable to pollute our oceans and our atmosphere without any consequences on your part, despite the fact that it will impact the health and happiness of everyone on the planet? That’s like trading a bit of short-term gain for a long-term loss. It’s like fattening up your wallet at the expense of others. The earth is our commons and we shouldn’t be free to exploit it since we all live here and must suffer the consequences of actions others take.

Maybe I’m being too radical in all this. Honestly, I am pushing harder than I normally would. Why? Just because. It might be that CO2 and methane are not problems. Perhaps our climate is solely warming for other reasons. Perhaps we won’t be running out of cheap fossil fuels. Maybe alternatives are more polluting and expensive than people like to admit. Maybe liberals are pushing alternatives in a similar manner that the conservatives pushed for a faux war in iraq. Maybe we’ll find in a few decades that this push for green energy was just as faux as the reasons we used to launch our campaign for regime change in iraq.

Battery Veteran

Supercomputers are going to enable a new, practical battery system? “To those who have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” It appears that the same can be said of those who have powerful computers.

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