Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Cars Run on Air

New Cars Run on Air By: Dave Greenfield
Today's electric cars are riddled with problems, mainly due to their inefficient batteries. Lithium-air batteries, which boast more power and a longer charge time, could revolutionize the automobile market.

Many of today's electric cars are powered by large lithium-ion batteries. While the trend of electric automobiles has yet to catch on, lithium-air batteries could revolutionize their recharging mechanism and make these cars more popular than ever.

Society has been discussing the possibility of reliable electric cars for decades, but the drawbacks have always presented bigger problems than most manufacturers could overcome. Even with today's advanced battery technology—the kind that can allow cell phones and iPods to go days between charges—electric cars only go half as far as most gas ones do before a recharge is necessary. Even recharging is a hassle. It requires hours of time and access to power sources that most individuals simply don't have.

Enter lithium-air battery technology. With the potential to have 10 times the energy of its lithium-ion cousin, researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and in other locations are carefully examining the concept.

Lithium-air batteries use a catalytic air cathode that supplies oxygen, an electrolyte and a lithium anode, according to researchers at ANL.

(Source: Argonne National Laboratory)

But don't go selling your gas-guzzling car just yet. Li-air batteries will require advancements in materials design, chemistry and engineering before researchers can realize their vision. Even then, breakthroughs will be required over the next two decades before a viable battery could be adopted in commercial applications.

Still, the U.S. federal government is excited enough to invest in the technology. At the start of May, $34 million in grants to lithium-air battery proposals were offered to researchers. To put that in context, the figure represents about one-third of the money (totaling $109.2 million according to the Department of Energy Budget Authority for Energy Research, Development, & Demonstration Database from the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School) that the DOE invested in vehicle technologies under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

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