• 06.18.12

Air-Breathing Batteries Promise To Unlock The 500-Mile Electric Car

To get more out of our batteries, we’re going to have to design them differently. One suggestion: Use the air around them to add to their power.

The future will be battery powered. We need light, efficient, powerful batteries to buffer the clean power grid, distribute residential renewable energy (battery-powered homes are moving into mass production), and charge cars enough that they can cruise for hundreds of miles on electrons alone.


None of this can happen without more power per square inch. Higher energy densities can unleash enormous potential to store energy wherever, and whenever, it’s needed. But even our best commercial batteries aren’t up to the task. Gasoline, natural gas, or other fossil fuels still pack 15 times more energy–about 12 kWh/kg–than ever our best batteries.

That’s where IBM’s Battery 500 Project promises to fundamentally rewrite the equation. The vision is to remove the constraints keeping our batteries bulky, heavy and relatively weak by reformulating the chemistry. Today’s technology combines fuel and oxygen inside the battery’s material. Lithium-air batteries, on the other hand, replace this by pulling oxygen from the ambient air. These “air-breathing batteries” can then pack far more electrons into a lighter load than today’s versions. And more electrons means more power.

Researchers have speculated about the technology since the 1970s, but advanced materials and supercomputers are finally making them possible. An article fully explaining IBM’s prototype, developed with partners Asahi Kasei and Central Glass, (you can read more about the process of creating the batteries here ]here)), will soon be published in a scientific journal, although th companye doesn’t expect to hit markets anytime soon: sometime after 2020. Others such as MIT are getting into the game as well and breaking records experimenting with materials such as carbon nanotubes in their batteries. Whatever the final material is, we need a power storage revolution to support it.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.