Lithium-air batteries, like their cousins zinc-air batteries, generate power by exposing metal and an electrolyte to oxygen, oxidizing the metal and releasing energy (see Electricity From Air and Zinc? A Growing Chorus Says Yes).
Zinc-air batteries are already commercially available for some uses like powering hearing aids, and developers say they can offer four times the energy storage of lithium-ion batteries.
Theoretically at least, lithium-air batteries could provide about 10 times the energy density – the amount of energy stored per kilogram – than the roughly 200 kilowatts per kilogram that cutting-edge lithium-ion batteries now provide, said Spike Narayan, the functional manager for science and technology at IBM's Almaden research lab.
The main challenge metal-air batteries pose is that it's very hard to reverse the chemical reaction that provides their energy without putting more energy into it than you'd get out of it. Meaning: Short of replacing the chemical components of the batteries, they can't be recharged, Narayan said.
It's a problem researchers have been trying to figure out for decades.
Advances will require finding the right catalysts to reverse the chemical reaction at low enough energy levels, as well as advances in nanotechnology to distribute that catalyst close enough to the metals so that it is effective, he said.
While IBM hasn't publicly announced its partners on the project, Narayan said they would be both industry and government research leaders in the field. IBM plans to unveil more about its plans in August.
Eventually, IBM envisions partnerships with battery makers or automotive companies to bring advances to commercial production, he said.
The technology could also have implications for storing energy for the electricity grid, he noted – something that Drew Clark, of IBM's Venture Capital Group, in December said is likely to be one of the hottest markets for venture capital investment this year (see For 2009, It's All About Smart Grid and Storage).