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Air battery to let electric cars outlast gas guzzlers

ONE of the biggest drawbacks with owning an electric vehicle (EV) is range anxiety – a driver’s nagging fear that the battery charge will not get them to their destination. Now IBM claims to have solved a fundamental problem that may lead to the creation of a battery with an 800-kilometre (500-mile) range – letting EVs potentially compete with most petrol engines for the first time.

Standard electric vehicles use lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, which are bulky and rarely provide 160 kilometres (100 miles) of driving before they run down.

A newer type, known as a lithium-air cell, is more attractive because it has theoretical energy densities more than 1000 times greater than the Li-ion type, putting it almost on a par with gasoline. Instead of using metal oxides in the positive electrode, lithium-air cells use carbon, which is lighter and reacts with oxygen from the air around it to produce an electrical current.

But there’s a problem. Chemical instabilities limit their lifespan when recharging, making them impractical for use in cars, says physicist Winfried Wilcke at IBM’s Almaden laboratories, based in San Jose, California.

So Wilcke studied the underlying electrochemistry of these cells using a form of mass spectrometry. What he found was that oxygen is reacting not just with the carbon electrode, as it was known to, but also with the electrolytic solvent – the conducting solution that carries the lithium ions between the electrodes
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