Lithium-Air Might Be The Better Battery

Researchers at Cambridge University demonstrated their latest version of what is being called the Lithium-Air battery. It can be more accurately referred to as a Lithium-Oxygen but Air sounds cooler.

The early estimates look pretty impressive with the energy density being 93% efficient which could be up to 10 times the energy density of Lithium-Ion and claims to be rechargeable up to 2,000 times.  Recent improvements toward Lithium-Air batteries include a graphene contact and using lithium hydroxide in place of lithium peroxide which increased both stability and efficiency.

Here’s the rub: Lithium-Air batteries are still years away from being ready for commercial use. There are still problems with the battery’s ability to charge and discharge (kind of a deal breaker if the battery won’t charge or discharge right?) There are still issues with safety, performance, efficiency, and the all too apparent need for pure oxygen.

Do batteries get you all charged up? Check out our coverage of MIT’s solid state battery research, or have a look at the Nissan Leaf and/or Tesla battery packs.

Thanks to [Jimmy] for the tip.

49 thoughts on “Lithium-Air Might Be The Better Battery

          1. That wouldn’t describe energy *density* though, just battery efficiency. Or as you put it, charge-discharge efficiency. What DOES it mean!? Energy density is WH/KG, not a percentage. Percentages are comparisons.

    1. The 93% number refers to the energy efficiency of the battery, not its energy density. But the reuters article used some convoluted (yet correct) phrasing and someone that doesn’t understand the topic felt the need to rewrite it (incorrectly).

  1. Each year they “find” the holy grail of batteries and a promise that within couple of years it will be commercially available.

    Is there somewhere a list of what happened all those groundbreaking battery technologies?

    From the top of my head I remember the melted salt battery. Any others?

      1. Well it is not just the press. When I point out the demand vs production problem with solar someone always brings up some new not in production battery tech.
        Like most thing when it comes to batteries it is only interesting at this point. It becomes exciting when it ships.

          1. Better battery technology research should be promoted directly by the IPCC and other top level organizations as part of the climate change effort.

            Consider the following: a single Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory coming online in 2017 can produce 35 GWh worth of lithium-ion batteries per year. To achieve this, they will eventually be consuming one sixth of the current world’s production output of lithium, and a similiar fraction in other very expensive metals such as cobolt.

            The lifetime of a single battery is about 10 years, and one electric car would need 100 kWh worth of batteries. Therefore, a single electric car “consumes” 10 kWh of batteries per year. That means we can supply 35 GWh / 10 kWh = 3.5 million cars per Gigafactory. Much fewer in practice because a great deal of the batteries would go to the Supercharger station network, and into the Tesla Powerwall units for homes.

            There are 253 million passenger vehicles in the US alone. To transition just the US fleet into electric cars by the next few decades, the -entire- world’s lithium production output would have to increase by a factor of 12. This is practically infeasible – any sort of reasonable ramp-up time would be more than 100 years, and we need still more batteries – massively more – for things like solar and wind energy, on the scale of 10 TWh in capacity, so a better type of battery has to be invented and soon!

            Unfortunately all the money in the green energy business is going towards energy subsidies rather than research grants, because energy subsidies are a fast return of interest for private investors and businesses, which is why they get lobbied through in government and the scientists are left to fend for themselves. Solar energy subsidies in the US for example can get you your money back practically on year-1 because you can stack different federal, state, municipal, etc. level incentives combined with net metering (utilities are forced to buy your power at retail rate). Solar energy is cheap to buy because all the subsidies amount up to a quarter per kWh, and the producers simpy have to sell power to anyone at any price to get it.

          2. > Much fewer in practice because a great deal of the batteries would go to the Supercharger station network,
            > and into the Tesla Powerwall units for homes.

            I always had the impression, that Tesla Powerwall units uses refurbished (used) Tesla car batteries.

          3. “I always had the impression, that Tesla Powerwall units uses refurbished (used) Tesla car batteries.”

            They don’t, because the battery breakdown mechanism is a self-accelerating decay. By the time the batteries are done for the cars, there’s possibly no more than 10% of the cycles left, and you’d have to keep replacing the refurbished cells every few months.

            A home is actually a similiar load as a car. Both use about 2 MWh per year total, when everything from the water boiler to the porch light is run on electricity.

          4. Correction, a house would use about 20 MWh fully electric, while a car would use 2 MWh per year. 2 MWh at 380 Wh per mile is about 5000 miles of driving.

            That’s btw. another problem we have: there’s an illusion of scale in renewable power production, because households use gas instead of electricity to heat and cook, and gas is measured in BTUs, so people don’t make the connection that there’s so much energy being used. If you cut the gas supply, the electric consumption goes from 3-4,000 kWh/a to 18,000 kWh/a in a typical home, plus the electric car, and suddenly all the figures that say how many homes a particular wind farm or solar array is “powering” drop by a factor of 6.

            In other words, how much renewable energy we think we need in order to make everything work is not nearly enough. When you replace all the electricity on the grid today with green power, there’s still 80% more work to do.

    1. They already declare that such type of battery still need at least 10 years of research and development to be available for commercial use. And not any estimated production cost was not mentioned… might be cheaper or might cost 1000x the price of actual battery.

      1. Back in 2002 there were “mud battery”. I think it already past your magic 10 years limit:
        http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/01/0122_020122_tvmudbatteries.html

        There were also Vanadium battery (2001), Bacterial battery (2003) and many other vaporware batteries.

        I can not recall any new battery research which became a commercial product.
        We (as a humanity) are still polishing lead-acid batteries, nickel-cd/mh and lithium batteries. Nothing *groundbreaking* happened in the last 20 years or so.

        1. A Vanadium flow battery is being used on some small island somewhere to buffer their power generation, which I think is solar. They have their uses, but for whatever reason aren’t used in phones and cars.

          I remember when the lithium polymer battery was still being reported in magazines as the battery of the future. I remember a few current technologies like that. It’s weird being old. I’m 38. Maybe it’s the acceleration of technology that makes me feel like that.

          Still, I don’t LOOK 38. Got ID’ed buying tobacco a couple of years ago. Thought I was under 25! That’s the important thing! The secret is fortunate genetics, and absolutely no sunlight.

          1. There’s vanadium flow batteries at least in Japan, Texas and Hawaii for what I remember.

            The problem is that they’re not cheap. The theoretical minimum price for extremely large systems is $150 per kWh capacity, as limited by the production cost of vanadium. Otherwise it’s around $300-400 per kWh which is around the same price as lithium batteries. Thing is, if you start making them in any great numbers, the price of vanadium will shoot up like a rocket so there’s no point trying.

            The reason why they aren’t used in phones and cars is because they have poor energy density at small sizes. The insulated and sealed containers and pumps and membrane stacks take up all the space, leaving no space for the fluids.

          2. Laszlo, I read about it in the New Scientist, maybe 5 or 10 years ago? Apart from that, no link, sorry! Still “Vanadium flow battery” isn’t going to come up with too many links.

          3. i remember reading the same newscientist article on vanadium redux flow batteries. it said it is in use on a windfarm in sorna, donegal, republic of ireland. both poles on the cell were made from the same element so the battery would last forever without poisoning itself. the batteries have low energy per volume so they would not be of use in phones.

        2. technology is rarely ground breaking. Hate to break it to you but 99.999% of what we have this the slow methodological incremental advancement of existing technologies. No ground breaking battery tech in 20 years, yet literally trillions of dollars of battery powered stuff that was impossible 20 years ago.

          The only problem is the unrealistic expectations of ignorant nobodies who don’t understand technology progression, have never actually attempted to quantify the rate of technological advancement (or even read published accounts), yet somehow remain perennially disappointed despite their non-contribution to literally unprecedented rates of technology progression.

          1. “yet literally trillions of dollars of battery powered stuff that was impossible 20 years ago.”

            The practical energy density of batteries in everyday devices since about 1990 has approximately doubled. Meanwhile the energy consumption of electronics like cellphones has gone down from Watts to microWatts, which is what is actually responsible for making all the battery powered stuff possible.

            This creates the illusion that we’ve gone so far ahead, but in reality, for all the applications that actually need the energy such as electric cars, batteries today are really no better than they were 20 years ago. You can go twice as far on a metric ton of them, but that’s still not far enough, and not for long enough to justify the price, and we can’t even make them in sufficient quantities to make a difference anyways.

        1. It’d be nice if HaD of EEtimes would do a post of all the different proposed designs and where they stand in current feasibility.
          I’d be willing to bet fat for most they’re either not economical from a manufacturing standpoint, or patents sold to a big company just for IP safekeeping, or probably a mix of both.

          1. 99% never got out of the lab because the chemistry or construction can’t be replicated on an industrial scale.

            Things like graphene/nanotech batteries are especially notorious for that. It’s one thing to make a bunch of graphene in the lab by peeling 2B pencil traces with sticky tape, and a whole different thing trying to manufacture it by the ton.

    2. together they make the incremental progress in cost efficiency and energy/power density that enable powerful pocket computers, legitimate EV options, and within a decade, batteries that disrupt both IC and electrical distribution grid systems.

      the article summary is nonsense, just like the university PR.

    3. Molten salt batteries are (and have been) in niche use mainly by the military (think man-portable guided missiles, both anti-tank and anti-aircraft) for many years. As long as you can keep the salt molten, it’s an awesome battery. However, the moment it stops being molten, it turns into a paperweight ;-)

    4. The problem is the press. Someone at a university will publish a scientific journal, which is just a study, and someone smart enough to somewhat loosely interpret the journal will convert it into an article with a little bit of industry jazz. After that, it gets picked up by secondary article publishers and they have to rewrite it so they aren’t plagiarising, which this slowly trickles down to the smaller firms like HaD. Once we read it, we are so blown away with buzzwords that we anticipate the technology to be here around the corner, when the original team that did the study barely validated the findings.

  2. Lithium Air battery’s are nice but the huge weight/power and weight/efficiency advantages are relative. They assume that you have air everywhere. Problem is that you need absolutely clean air so no dust no reactive elements and so on. And that’s pretty hard to achieve. Simple solution is to seal the battery and put air(oxygen) in side. But that adds to weight and the “huge” advantage vanishes almost completely. So I don’t believe in the breakthrough of Lithium-Air batteries or at least not with the impact as proclaimed.

  3. No, and no again. Li-Air batteries sound nice, but are just the academic equivalent to link bait. It may have high energy density but with no power density. Long story short they use small test currents to show flashy numbers.

    1. to be fair we wont know until the concept has been exhaustively researched, battery capacity and charge-discharge rates are connected to the structure and not just the chemistry of a cell, which is why we have been seeing fairly steady improvements in the energy density of lithium batteries for an example, despite the base chemistry changing very little (there are a few variations).

  4. I like the pictures in the article. It’s looks like a homebrew hack.

    Batteries, solar cells small increments every year makes them better. Quite a lot over half a century, but it’s never enough. If we have had 23% efficient commercial solar cells and almost dirt cheap Li-po cells in the 50’ies, we would have our hoverboards now.

    Material science is the key, and building nanoscale structures wasn’t possible before the 80’ies, so in a sense, it’s right around the corner like the cure for cancer, electric cars and fair income for the 90%.

    1. Electric cars are dependent on battery technology, the cure for cancer is dependent on the advancement of faster computers. However, all these things we have been waiting for are only going to be driven by money. Lithium battery technology advanced rapidly because of cell phones. Money is being pumped into R&D for the battery because it’s the factor holding back everything. Imagine being the first battery manufacturer to the market with a lithium battery that can hold twice the capacity in the same footprint. Million dollar bills y’all.

      1. There was relatively little money put into lithium batteries, because integrated circuits were developing faster with lower power consumption.

        A lithium battery today is only about twice the energy than a lithium battery in 1995. The area with the most significant advancement has been in production cost.

  5. safety is the big thing right now say lithium batteries and what is the first thing people think? fires and explosions

    from shoddy cell phone batteries to shoddy laptop batteries to the biggest news of fires the 787 dreamliner.

    when using lithium batteries make sure to use the proper charging systems especially with loose cells as they have no protective bms built in

    the next thing is cost make the batteries affordable dont use the patent to charge outrageous prices and try to source the materials from american stock to prevent dealing with conflict sources witch can raise prices due to war

    and make sure that the factory is properly licensed to handle the raw lithium metal and to prove that it wont go into making meth

  6. LOL, how about we just burn the lithium and use the heat, then send the oxide back to be recycled? Lithium will never be completely safe in a high density power source because it is it’s reactivity that makes it useful.

    1. Someone actually had the idea of that, but using Boron. A wire of Boron would be burned in air, and the oxide ash collected and reprocessed later. Site was called “Boron Blast”, dunno if it’s still there, some old dude from a.f.c on Usenet.

      I think if you want full reclamation of your fuel, you’re probably best off planting a few trees and burning wood. Much simpler.

  7. 10 times the energy density of existing lithium batteries sounds great, until you consider that one pound of fat stores as much energy as 40 pounds of lithium ion. And unlike lithium, fat is not going to run out anytime soon. (If it does, we just solved one of the world’s biggest problems!) Maybe it’s time to research how to make fat powered fuel cells that are practical?

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