In the last few years, electric vehicles have gone from a dream to the next logical step for vehicles. Of course, the future of EVs is still being debated, but IBM is using its cash and influence to push for an electric vehicle battery that can carry a car 500 miles without recharging.
500 miles is a long way, longer than most gasoline engines. And while the batteries might still require a long charge at the end of those 500 miles (longer than a five-minute gasoline fill up) it would still be a tremendous advantage over the 100 mile range of today's EVs.
There are a few paths to getting around this range problem. One is GM's "extended range electric vehicle" idea, which puts a gasoline generator in the car to recharge the batteries when they run low. Another is Shai Agassi's "Better Place" model, which has battery swapping stations scattered around the country for when you need a quick re-charge.
The third and most obvious option is to wait for battery technology to get good enough to satisfy the demands of drivers. IBM, sick of waiting, is pushing this direction hard. The project is called the "Battery 500 Project" and it focuses on advanced battery chemistries that will increase the "power density" of batteries. IBM's "Big Green" project last year asked for submissions for big green ideas, and the winning submission was the "Lithium Air Battery" which is what the Battery 500 Project will be focusing on.
Conceptually, lithium air batteries use lithium as the anode and oxygen as the cathode. Because oxygen would be fed into the battery from the surrounding air, the cathode would, in effect, be weightless. And because oxygen is available on demand, the only limiting factor is how much contact the battery can make with their air. That's where IBM's expertise comes in, they want to take their high-tech, nano-scale semiconductor manufacturing experience and use it to dramatically increase the surface area of the anode.
IBM is estimating that it will take two years to determine whether this technology is feasible. But even if that means it'll be five years before they hit the market, this will still be a huge breathrough for power storage technology.