Last week, IBM announced that it is bringing on two corporate partners, Asahi Kasei and Central Glass, to collaborate on research for its Battery 500 Project, the goal of which is to develop a lithium-air battery that can power an electric car for 500 miles on a single charge. In comparison, today’s conventional lithium-ion batteries can only take cars roughly 150 miles between plug-ins. Lithium-air batteries, so-named because they use oxygen to drive a chemical reaction, theoretically have a much higher energy density – hence their appeal. The fact that IBM has dedicated time and money to the development of the technology is an indication of its significant potential. Furthermore, the progression of the Battery 500 Project itself is an interesting case study in innovation.
In late 2009, IBM applied for an ARPA-E grant to support its lithium-air battery research, one of 220 battery-related proposals. Ultimately, the agency chose to fund two other lithium-air projects instead, doling out roughly $5 million to the PolyPlus Battery Company and a little more than $1 million to researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology. IBM chose to continue its work nonetheless, leading the New York Times to characterize it as being in the “rare category” of “a big company willing to take a big risk”. If anything, the decision to continue high-risk research without the cost being in part defrayed by government funding is a telling sign of just how high-reward a potential breakthrough could be.
In taking on the burden of risk in advanced research without government financial support, IBM is very much an anomaly in today’s clean tech world. Nevertheless, although the Battery 500 Project may not have been able to secure an ARPA-E grant, the federal government has been a key collaborator in other ways. Scientists from multiple national labs – Argonne, Lawrence Livermore, Pacific Northwest, and Oakridge – have been involved in R&D efforts. In addition, essential experiments on electrolytes were conducted at Argonne and not IBM’s own Almaden research center, as might be expected. It is worth noting, however, that future project collaborators Asahi Kasei and Central Glass are Japanese companies that were brought on for their advanced manufacturing expertise, which highlights a key national energy policy weakness: the lack of an aggressive, national advanced manufacturing strategy.
Along with IBM, the two ARPA-E grantees are moving forward with their own proprietary research. Their work is different than IBM in that ARPA-E gave special consideration for batteries that displayed potential for being domestically manufactured when originally considering grant applicants. As agency head Arun Majumdar put it, “At the end of the day, we want the scaling in the United States of these successful technologies.” PolyPlus in particular has also set itself apart in deciding to perfect a lithium-water battery before applying the breakthrough technology to the development of a lithium-air battery. Although a battery that works underwater obviously does not have practical applications for electric cars, the fact that most of today’s underwater batteries are toxic, whereas PolyPlus’ model is both benign and can last as much as twice as long on a single charge, makes their battery “ideal for powering sensors that monitor offshore oil rigs, submarine activity, and tsunamis,” as BloombergBusinessweek put it.
Ultimately, innovations in batteries, for electric vehicles or otherwise, are essential to making clean energy cheap. The progress of IBM, PolyPlus, and others is a promising sign that the work of both the public and private sector in the U.S. is making an impact.
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