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An Electric Car That Actually Goes Far?

Researchers have long had high hopes for lithium-air batteries, a device that has the potential to store 10 times more energy than the best lithium-ion batteries on the market today. But so far, lithium-air batteries have been unstable, falling apart after a few charges. Now researchers report that they’ve made the first stable lithium-air batteries. If the batteries can leap other hurdles needed to make them practical, they may one day give electric cars a driving range similar to today’s gas guzzlers.

For lithium-air batteries to operate, several different components all need to work together. As they discharge, lithium atoms at a lithium metal electrode called the anode are stripped of electrons, turning them into mobile lithium ions. These ions then float through a conductive solution, or electrolyte, to a second electrode, called the cathode, where they combine with electrons in the cathode as well as oxygen atoms from the air to generate lithium oxide. When the batteries are plugged into an electrical outlet, the added voltage drives the reaction in reverse, recharging the battery. For the cycle to work, however, the electrodes and electrolytes must be stable.

But that hasn’t been the case in early versions of these cells. The carbon used to make the cathodes and the different electrolytes researchers have tried so far undergo unwanted side reactions, falling apart and quickly causing the battery to fail after just a few charge and discharge cycles.


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