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Connected Driving 6 min read

EV does it: will lithium-air batteries solve range anxiety?

A view of a long, straight road in the desert, with an electric vehicle driving in the distance.

US scientists at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Argonne National Laboratory have designed a lithium-air battery that could significantly boost EV range. HERE360 finds out more.

Dramatically introducing the number of EV charge points is the only way to meet demand from electric vehicle (EV) drivers. Or is it?

Technological advancements promise to change the game for EV charging. High on the list for scientists and industry leaders is EV battery technology. If we could invent a lighter battery that worked for longer, range would no longer be such an obstacle to EV adoption. You might not worry so much about how far away the next charge point is if you could travel 1,000 miles without running out of power.

In a sign of growth in the industry, companies announced more than US$73bn in planned American battery plants in 2022 alone. Despite this advance, there are lots of problems with existing EV battery technology. 

Firstly, they are extremely heavy and their charge does not last long enough for the needs of many drivers, especially those that have to travel longer distances

Secondly, critics point out the mineral extraction needed for their production is bad for the environment, making EVs potentially less environmentally friendly than hoped. Hydrogen fuel cells offer an intriguing possibility but many agree they require further research and development.

However, US scientists at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have designed a lithium-air battery that could significantly boost EV range.

It could one day replace the lithium-ion battery and power larger vehicles, including long-haul trucks and even airplanes. 

HERE360 spoke to Larry Curtiss, Argonne Distinguished Fellow in the Materials Science Division, and Mohammad Asadi, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a partner. 

For the past 10 years, Curtiss has been working at Argonne researching advanced battery technology, which has led him and his team to some exciting discoveries with big possibilities for the future of EVs.

HERE – SBD Automotive EV Index

A big breakthrough

The team explored several options while working on the next generation of EV batteries, including lithium, sulfur and lithium-air batteries. They eventually came to a clear conclusion: lithium-air was the best option.

“It can improve energy density really significantly," said Mohammad Asadi, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a partner in the project.

The battery his team has developed could power a car for a thousand miles on a single charge. That's four times more than the average EV — and it could one day be enough to power domestic airplanes and long-distance trucks.

The lithium-air battery has so far been tested for a thousand cycles in a test cell. The next stage is scaling up the technology for commercial use.

Two cars share a charging point to charge their EVs.

How do lithium-air batteries work?

A lithium-ion battery contains an anode and a cathode. Lithium comes from the intercalation of lithium-ion into a metal oxide, usually made from metals such as manganese, nickel or cobalt.

“That's what we have in most EVs these days," Curtiss explained. “It's working well, but the energy density is limited, and we want to increase that energy density."

One way of doing that is to create a chemical bond between the lithium and oxygen, using the oxygen as a cathode. A battery made this way has the advantage of being very lightweight as well as having more energy density than conventional lithium-ion batteries do, since the oxygen and lithium can get closer together.

However, this was easier said than done. A big challenge the team faced was finding an electrolyte that would be stable enough to support this process.

“Just recently, we had a breakthrough where we were able to use a solid-state electrolyte that was stable enough to create a safe battery," he said.

Electric vehicles (EVs) recharge at a charging station.

Are lithium-air batteries the answer to our problems?

Lab tests, in partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, have proven that the technology works with a lithium-air battery about the size of a coin.

“We showed that it could have a good cycle life and energy density was close to 1,000 watt hours per kilogram, which has not been achieved before," Curtiss said. The next step requires investment from government and industry to scale up.

“We are aiming for the aviation industry, but if it is successful, the battery can be used in EVs as well. “Quite a few different industries have talked to us about it," he said.

Asadi added: “We are working with a few prospective partners to see if we can go further and scale up this technology."

The batteries could also be used on ships and for trains. Curtiss said if the team gets funding, it could take about three years to know if their lithium-air battery is feasible. Then it could be another five to 10 years to bring it to market.

“The other thing we need to work on is fast charging, but if a typical EV can travel for 250 miles on a single charge, with this battery it could in theory go for 1,000 miles," he added.

Arbonne is not the only place working on lithium-air batteries. Similar research is going on in Asia and in Europe including the UK, Curtiss said, though much of it is still in the early stages. With a forecast of 10 times growth in battery demand, alternative battery types could end up providing an additional option to lithium-ion rather than replacing them, especially when supply chain struggles are considered.

Regardless, the prospect of improved range and battery-powered long-haul trucks and airplanes is certainly an exciting one.


Beth McLoughlin 2023

Beth McLoughlin

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