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IBM’s Latest Foray into Green Technology: Lithium-Air Batteries

Big Blue has launched an ambitious battery project  with the a goal of commercializing an experimental battery technology — lithium metal-air — in order to acheive over ten times the energy density of today’s best batteries. This week, IBM will host a gathering of some of the world’s top researchers in the field, including auto company researchers and others involved with batteries for electric cars, to talk about moving beyond lithium-ion technology.  Lithium-ion is the battery technology of choice for mass market electric cars under development at Nissan, General Motors and Tesla Motors.

Lithium-air batteries are a “highly flammable lithium metal to react with oxygen in the air,” so to harness their energy safely, IBM will have to harness its expertise in nanotechnology and supercomputers.  Lithium-air batteries require sophisticated nanostructures in order to prevent water from entering the battery (and causing a violent explosive reaction).  IBM has already established itself as a front-runner in micro electronic mechanical systems with its innovative application of DNA to keep processor speeds increasing as transistors shrink to nanometers.

Another key to cracking the lithium-air battery code could be supercomputers, potentially useful in modelling the complex nanostructures necessary to making the batteries safe and commercially viable, fortunately one of IBM’s strong suits.  IBM currently has between six and ten people working on the project, and experts expect the basic scientific questions to be answered within three years at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.  

But the investment could pay huge dividends, as lithium-air is the only battery system that could prove to be “as good as gasoline,” according to Winfried Wilcke, Senior Manager of Nanoscale Science & Technology, and Program Director of Silicon Valley Projects for IBM’s Almaden Research Center.  He adds, “There could be big boulders and pebbles flying in our face, but we see a path.”

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