April 20, 2012 at 12:01 AM ET
An electric car that can go from Boston to Detroit on a single charge could hit showroom floors sometime in the next decade, if all continues to go smoothly for IBM.
Yes, IBM. The company, best known these days for its trivia-champ computer Watson, is making a risky bet on the development of lithium-air battery technology in a bid to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles.
"Certainly, if it is successful, we stand to make some money," Winfried Wilcke, the principal investigator of IBM’s Battery 500 Project, told me on Thursday. What’s more, he added, such a battery could expedite the transition away from reliance on oil. "That was really the trigger for me to start this project."
Several electric vehicles are on the road today, but most of them have a range of 150 miles or less. The fear of running out of juice while driving around – known as range anxiety – is considered a major barrier to adoption of the technology.
Wilcke and his colleagues reckon that a car that can drive 500 miles or more on a single charge is sufficient to make such worries a thing of the past and convince people to fill up by plugging in.
How lithium-air works
Unlike the similar sounding lithium-ion batteries found in today’s electric vehicles that rely on heavy metal oxides to drive the chemical reactions that produce electricity, lithium-air batteries breathe in oxygen from the air. This allows them to be lighter and much more energy dense.
In theory, the oxygen combines with lithium ions in a chemical reaction that generates electricity and produces lithium peroxide. Upon recharge, the reaction is reversed, sending the oxygen back into the air.
IBM has been working on the battery since 2009. They’ve successfully demonstrated the technology in the lab and Friday announced partnerships with two materials science companies that can help tackle many of the remaining engineering challenges to make a practical battery for a car.
"There are, however, many engineering and materials science problems to be solved," Wilcke said. "So I do not expect that one can see cars in the showroom powered by lithium air before sometime, maybe, in the middle of next decade.”
Still, the lab demonstration of a functional battery is a significant milestone, given that even the basics of how scientists thought the battery should work in 2009 proved misguided.
"When we started," Wilcke explained, "people had thought the fact that you could recharge a lithium-air battery was established. That turned out to be, unfortunately, false. What was thought to be rechargeability was in fact confused with destruction of the battery."
Instead of releasing pure oxygen to the air upon recharge, the battery was releasing carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that driving an electric vehicle, even one filled with juice from a coal-fired power plant, is meant to reduce.
"That was really bad news," Wilcke said.
But, the scientists forged ahead and figured out they had a problem with the battery's electrolytes and have since started using a different one that works.
While the new electrolyte is still not perfect, one of the partnerships IBM announced Friday is with Central Glass, a leading electrolyte manufacturer for lithium-ion batteries and together they’ve identified an electrolyte that "really looks promising," Wilcke noted. Specific details are under wraps.
Another hurdle for a practical lithium-air battery is the development of a membrane that can filter pure, dry oxygen for the battery from ambient air, which contains moisture. The other partner announced Thursday, Asahi Kasei, is a Japanese supplier of membranes.
These companies stand to benefit from the project as suppliers when and if IBM's technology ever moves from the lab to automobile production lines. Wilcke said IBM is unlikely to get into the battery manufacturing game itself, but would make money from licensing fees.
"But there’s more to it than that," he said. "If it succeeds, it will have a major impact on oil consumption and reducing it."
Such a noble goal fits with other programs in IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, such as a foray as a supplier of analytical tools for the development of ocean energy technology.
While these initiatives seem risky in today’s economic and political environment, they could payoff big in the long term. If so, does the company known as Big Blue become Big Green?
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.