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Argonne National Laboratory wins research grant for battery technology

-December 01, 2012

The $120 million federal Energy Department grant given to Argonne will create the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research to drive commercialization of next-generation energy storage technologies.

The following is a synopsis of how this all began two years ago

Argonne Explores Lithium-air Battery

In 2010 Argonne National Laboratory began exploring lithium-air (Li-air) batteries that have the capacity to store up to five to 10 times the energy of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, or almost as much energy as a tank of gasoline of the same size.

Researchers Khalil Amine and Michael Thackeray led the team that explored innovative and radically new concepts for dramatically advancing lithium-air batteries. The proposal, “Beyond Li-ion Battery Technology for Energy Storage,” was submitted by Amine and Thackeray.

The lithium ion batteries used in today's electric vehicles rely on a metal oxide or metal phosphate (typically cobalt, manganese or iron-based materials) cathode as a positive electrode, a carbon-based anode as a negative electrode and an electrolyte to conduct lithium ions from one electrode to the other. When the car is driven, the lithium ions flow from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte and separator membrane. Charging the battery reverses the direction of ion flow.

How Does a Lithium-air Battery Work?

Li-air batteries hold the promise of increasing the energy density of LI-ion batteries by as much as five to 10 times

 

A Li-air battery has a positive electrode made of lightweight porous carbon and a negative electrode made of lithium metal. To make electricity, oxygen from the air moves through the porous carbon electrode, where it reacts catalytically with lithium ions and electrons from the external circuit to form a solid lithium oxide.

The solid lithium oxide gradually fills the pore spaces inside the carbon electrode as the battery discharges. When the battery is recharged, the lithium oxide decomposes again, releasing lithium ions and freeing up pore space in the carbon. Resulting oxygen is released back into the atmosphere.

Argonne’s Team

Realization of a viable Li-air battery will require a technological breakthrough and it may take one to two decades before the product can be adopted in a commercial application.

Argonne will also leverage existing relationships with start-up companies and other business partners who will be able to collaborate on commercializing the Li-air battery.

Excerpts from Scientific American-IBM-April 2012 article by Larry Greenmeier

IN THE AIR: In this screen capture from an IBM computational simulation, scientists study the simulations of the interaction of an organic solvent electrolyte (propylene carbonate) with lithium ions (white) and oxygen near a surface of Lithium-peroxide (the planar structure near the bottom of the screen). Image: Courtesy of IBM Research-Zurich

The Battery 500 Project IBM-2012 (Courtesy of IBM)

IBM plans to build a working prototype by the end of next year. They have stepped up development efforts by adding two Japanese technology firms—chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp. and electrolyte maker Central Glass—to the IBM Battery 500 Project, a coalition IBM established in 2009 to accelerate the switch from gas to electric-powered vehicles among carmakers and their customers.

Researchers predict a new type of lithium battery under development could give an electric car enough juice to travel a whopping 800 kilometers before it needs to be plugged in again—about 10 times the energy that today's lithium ion batteries supply.

 

How it works: During discharge (driving), oxygen from the air reacts with lithium ions, forming lithium peroxide on a carbon matrix. Upon recharge, the oxygen is given back to the atmosphere and the lithium goes back onto the anode. (Courtesy of IBM)

The oxygen molecules react with lithium ions and electrons on the surface of a porous carbon cathode to form lithium peroxide. This lithium peroxide formation during discharge leads to an electrical current that powers the car's motor. When charging, the reverse reaction takes place—the oxygen is released back to the atmosphere. The anode, meanwhile, is made of lithium, the lightest metal. Without the need for heavy metals the battery would be several times lighter while being able to store more energy than its lithium ion cousin.

Although this works in a computer simulation, lithium–air batteries have specific requirements in practice that scientists are still trying to meet. "We found out pretty early in the project that the electrolytes currently used in lithium ion batteries do not work in lithium–air batteries because the oxygen in a lithium–air battery attacks and destroys the electrolyte," rendering it unable to conduct a charge, says Winfried Wilcke, Battery 500 Project's principle investigator. One solution, he adds, would be to use two different electrolytes, one for the cathode and a second for the anode, with a membrane in between to keep them from mixing.

That is where IBM's new partners come in. Asahi Kasei will develop a membrane the batteries can use to separate their electrolytes while allowing lithium ions to pass from the anode to the cathode. Central Glass will create a new class of electrolytes and high-performance additives specifically designed to improve lithium–air battery performance.

Wilcke estimates the lithium–air batteries might be ready for production by 2020 at the earliest, "if we don't find any show-stopping technology along the way." He adds: "The only thing I'm certain of is that it won't happen this decade."

Well that does not rule a new breakthrough in battery technology that we may not have even thought of yet. Brookhaven National Labs and Stonybrook University are looking for alternative funding and with prolific and award-winning inventor and electrochemist Esther Takeuchi now at BNL since June---the future looks pretty bright to me!

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