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Why the lithium air battery is over hyped

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IBM (s IBM) has made a lot of noise about its lithium air battery, which it says can hold as much energy in a given volume as gasoline can. But General Motors (s GM) isn’t all that convinced that lithium air battery technology is worth the investment.

“From General Motors’ perspective, we are not investing in this technology because it’s not providing a substantial benefit,” said Thomas Greszler, manager of the cell design group at GM’s electrochemical energy research lab, during a presentation at battery symposium hosted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on Tuesday. Essentially making the lithium air technology work will require some big improvements and the end results may not turn out to be worth the trouble and costs, says Greszler.

The goal

PolyPlus Water

Bold claims have been made for years about the blend of battery chemistry that can use air as the cathode. Back in 2009, IBM said lithium air batteries could hold at least 10 times more energy than the lithium-ion batteries on the market then. Earlier this year, IBM re-stated this dramatic improvement potential and dangled the vision of a battery system that one day can prolong the drive range of an electric car to 500 miles per charge, or about five times the range of existing electric cars.

Lithium-air batteries are attractive to researchers because they can rely on air as the cathode and lithium metal as the anode. Oxygen, being and abundant and doesn’t require heavy casing to contain it inside a battery cell, also theoretically can achieve a high energy density, which extends the driving range of an EV. In a typical battery cell, lithium ions travel from the cathode to the anode when you charge it (through the electrolyte), and the anode holds onto the lithium ions to store the energy. When you use a battery, the lithium ions move from the anode to the cathode and a resulting chemical reaction leads to the harvesting of the electrons.

However, many improvements will need to be made to make a lithium air battery a good fit for an electric cars. Greszler noted that the need to pump oxygen into the battery system means an air compressor and blower will need to be built into the car. Adding more parts is generally not a good approach when a major goal is to reduce the weight of the car to improve its performance and fuel economy.

Creating a watertight design is also critical because lithium metal is highly flammable and can ignite and burn when exposed to water. So removing water vapor from the air is a must.

As a result of some of these issues, a lithium air battery could be heavier than the advanced lithium-ion batteries under development now, and Greszler said it’s “highly unlikely that lithium-air will provide any cost savings.”

The hype

The promise of lithium air battery has also led to a level of hype, many researchers agree. One of the hypes is the belief that lithium air batteries could deliver about 1,300 watt hours per kilogram of energy, said Stan Whittingham, professor of chemistry and material science at the State University New York, in a talk that he titled, “Beyond Lithium Ion: A Reality Check.”

A more realistic estimate is the 800 watt hours per kilogram that startup PolyPlus is hoping to achieve. PolyPlus received a Department of Energy grant to work on encapsulating the lithium electrode to create a more stable battery system. In comparison, lithium-ion batteries used in cell phones today are in the 200 watt hours per kilogram range.

Whittingham said lithium air batteries might find good uses elsewhere, just not in cars. Whittingham also looked to “IBM is one of the culprits for hyping,” lithium air battery technology for electric cars.

Even if IBM delivers on this technology, everyone agrees that commercializing lithium air batteries will take a long time. IBM said its project won’t likely lead to a commercial product until 2020 or 2030.

10 Responses to “Why the lithium air battery is over hyped”

  1. Bill Dale

    Ugggh. There are critics that are critics for no other reason than they lack the creative skill to find solutions to problems, or because of some kind of antisocial compulsion. It is laughable that merely adding a blower or compressor to a battery would negate any weight losses, when a battery for an EV can weigh close to a ton– does this dingbat really think a well-designed scroll compressor would weigh more than 30 lbs. or so?

    I would love to rub his nose in it when St. Andrews, IBM, or one of the others working on air batteries presents their success.

    Between air battery tech, graphene, carbon nanotubes and other inventive approaches being used to deal with energy density, I have no doubt that within a few years gasoline will no longer have any value in vehicles.

  2. Bobby

    Isn’t it a bit premature to speculate that IBM hasn’t already addressed the problems about lithium-air batteries noted in this story? I mean come on, this is IBM we are talking about, not some fledgling start up, that strapped for cash. I’ve also noticed them being very secretive about their technology they will employ here. It’s kind of hard to believe that they would go through this trouble to do something that someone has already done. And as for the 2020 time table, I’m willing to bet it will take that long because of bureaucratic red tape, not technological hurdles. I guess time will tell though.

    • Overcoming some fundamental challenges is difficult regardless of who is tackling them, IBM or otherwise. All eyes are on IBM to deliver progress though since it’s done quite a bit in touting the merit of lithium-air chemistry, and IBM knows it will take some time to deliver on the promise. I don’t know what you meant by “doing something that someone has already done.” What GM and the SUNY professor point out are questions that have yet to be resolved. And in the realm of scientific research, it’s common for researchers to challenge each other’s thesis and see who can deliver incremental improvements if not breakthroughs.

      • James F

        1. What questions were not resolved? The article doesn’t say.
        2. How does going from 200 watt hours per kg to 800 watt hours per kg not a big deal?

  3. Som Mohanty

    A huge challenge is making a Li-air battery rechargeable. People have been trying to rechargeable Li batteries since the 70s, and besides using a large excess of Li (which reduces energy density drastically), there has not been much success.

  4. steven

    Researchers have discovered a cathode using sulfur and carbon nanotubes that could make a battery with 700 watt hours per kilogram. Its just a little too expensive right now but the cost of carbon nanotubes is dropping all the time.

  5. Martin D

    I found the comments made by GM very interesting. I don’t suppose that IBM will give up on the technology but having followed their progress the commercializing of lithium air batteries seems to be getting further away.
    I wonder if anyone has looked at the liquid air engines as an alternative. the technology is already in place, the skills to build the engines are in place and the production of liquid air is also in place. Because air is the ‘fuel’ and no actual combustion takes place the construction of metal engines needs to be examined and perhaps modern plastics could be considered. This seems like a no brainer, or have I missed something?

    • The thing about science is there are always debates about the process and likely outcomes. IBM should continue the research and maybe it will find ways to overcome the obstacles and make lithium air battery work.