back to article Lithium-air: A battery breakthrough explained

In the quest for smaller, longer-lasting, more powerful batteries, scientists have tried many alternative approaches to battery chemistry. One may have just produced the breakthrough we’re waiting for. The urban legend is that there was a small leak in a battery cell that chemist K M Abraham was testing in his laboratory in …

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No boom today

No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow. What? Look, somebody's got to have some damn perspective around here! Boom. Sooner or later. BOOM!

Lithium Peroxide? In my pocket? No thanks.

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Mushroom

Re: No boom today

+1 for the Ivanova quote :)

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Re: No boom today

Lithium Peroxide? In my pocket? No thanks.

Why?

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Re: No boom today

i'd be more worried about the iodine I3.

What happens when mixed w ammonia?

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Re: No boom today

Lithium Peroxide? In my pocket? No thanks.

I don't see this as being much worse than other high-energy-density chemical packs we blithely cart around now. Li-ion batteries in your pocket aren't much fun if they short out or break open.1 Or cigarette lighters, which aren't quite so common these days in some parts, but many people still carry. Or guns (well, ammunition).

Broadly speaking, people are pretty unconcerned about sticking volatile chemicals down their pants because we've gotten pretty good at keeping them2 contained.

Maybe under your personal threat model that's not an acceptable risk. That's fine. I'm more concerned about, say, auto accidents, which have a much higher casualty rate.

1Admittedly that doesn't happen often, which is why we put up with them, but on what grounds is a battery with Li2O2 significantly worse?

2 The chemicals, not the people. Or the pants.

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How delicate is it? etc

The discharge process requires oxygen, which I assume would come from the atmosphere for any simple applications. Given the apparently delicate chemistry, would there be any atmospheric pollutants that might 'poison' the battery? I'm thinking about nose to tail commuter traffic.

Given that oxygen is a consumed reactant, how much oxygen would be needed to generate adequate power for a car to accelerate in town traffic? The battery might need a compressed air supply to give adequate power for practical applications.

The charging process generates 'waste' oxygen .... be careful.

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Joke

Re: How delicate is it? etc

I suggest you ask VW about that.

Probably easily doable with a simple software fix ....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: How delicate is it? etc

You're getting way ahead of yourself here. If any of those things are problems, they are probably not insoluble problems*, but we're at the stage it's just a lab experiment; wait until they have a vaguely practical prototype, then you can start looking at what issues are in the way of productionising it.

*Ok, I'll play the wildly premature speculation game, since you insist; if you need compressed air, use the tech in a gas turbine hybrid, then you have an efficient combustion engine and a compressor that'll give you as much air as you need. Contaminants? Filters. Waste oxygen? Recycle it, then you need less from the atmosphere.

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Source of Oxygen? Re: How delicate is it? etc

The article mentions "...Instead it incorporates hydrogen stripped from the water (H2O) " so can't the Oxygen left over be used? I do realise the quantity available may not be enough!

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Re: Source of Oxygen? How delicate is it? etc

"so can't the Oxygen left over be used? I do realise the quantity available may not be enough!"

In theory it could be used but the practical problem would be storing it during charging until it was needed.for use. I mole of oxygen is 32g but occupies ~23 L A vehicle battery would require a huge storage volume or a lot of energy to compress it and a weight penalty for the cylinder. .

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Re: Source of Oxygen? How delicate is it? etc

can't the Oxygen left over be used?

It will, just possibly not by the battery that produced it, or for that matter by any battery. If the battery is cracking (a small amount of) water and forming compounds with the hydrogen but not all of the oxygen, then the remaining oxygen will be exhaust. Which means it goes into the big pool of available oxygen (and other stuff) we call "the atmosphere". And something will make use of it eventually.

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Re: How delicate is it? etc

Store the recharge generated oxygen and consume it in the discharge phase.

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Re: How delicate is it? etc

If we are talking cars here what's wrong with storing the fuel needed in say well a tank. You know like we do with the current car tech and petrol?

Dump the oxygen to the tank and suck it back when needed.

This would obviously be a problem for something smaller but cars not a problem.

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Re: Source of Oxygen? How delicate is it? etc

>Which means it goes into the big pool of available oxygen (and other stuff) we call "the atmosphere". >And something will make use of it eventually.

May contain upto 100% post-consumer recycled Oxygen ?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: How delicate is it? etc

The discharge process requires oxygen, which I assume would come from the atmosphere for any simple applications...

I was wondering similarly, but more about applications such as submarine batteries for example where there is little or no 'atmosphere', or perhaps industrial environments where the atmosphere might combine other undesirable elements.

I presume though that its just a matter of chemistry (a different method of providing the oxygen) and engineering (figuring out how the components can interact inside a durable sealed casing).

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interesting..

however... Graphene.. still not commercially viable.

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Re: interesting..

Graphene wont be commercially available until the patents on it run out. Its not worth investing in researching how to make it if someone else owns your product.

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Re: interesting..

production or research into production is currently not interesting because projected demand is still too low. Once the demand is there someone WILL make it (and probably making a pretty penny doing so)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: interesting..

Have an upvote to counter the downvotes.

There are so many lab "breakthroughs" which depend on cheap, stable graphene production or other nanotech for commercialization. Since I can't keep up with them all I think the best strategy is to stop reading as soon as a magic word appears. But prepare to be very excited when a company develops cheap graphene and other nanotech production.

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Re: interesting..

So I googled to see what the deal is with graphene patents, not being familiar with the subject, found Graphene: the worldwide patent landscape in 2015 . Wow, that's a lot of patents. Presumably the vast majority of those are related to specific applications though. What are the basic patents getting in the way of someone e.g. using some graphene film in an electrode, as with this lithium-air battery?

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Coat

Re: interesting..

It patents net slow development of technologies (they do), then patents, say on Graphene, are not just anti-property rights, anti-capitalist, state monopoly privileges, this counter productive behaviour also rather effectively voids the social benefit myths, thus are net negative!

I don't see the benefit of this tech. unless it can produce much higher energy density (it doesn't seem to yet) at affordable purchase and life-time cost, but use of Graphene does suggest that it may not be affordable.

I also wonder how much longer we will have cheap enough Lithium to build more affordable batteries...

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Facepalm

Re: interesting..

It patents net slow development of technologies (they do),

Any development of technology tends to require significant investment. That won't happen without ROI, which means some method of ensuring that the original developers are compensated for that technology's use is a prerequisite for said development to take place at all.

As not all technologies developed prove of worth, ROI has to exceed investment by a considerable amount to keep investors chucking the cash on the off-chance of hitting a winner.

As most people[1] are freeloading thieves at heart, some legal mechanism is required to force the buggers to compensate the developers.

"Stopped" is slower than "slow", so they don't. QED.

[1] and all corporate entities....

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Re: interesting..

Re the freeloading. The early patents on graphene come from using sellotape to peel already existing graphene from graphite. Cost - fuck all compared with applying for the patent.

So the development costs of graphene are near zero. For someone else to make graphene in useful quantities is going to be fucking enormous and they will have to pay the patent holder if they can get a license. Not worth the risk.

If I could produce sizeable sheets of graphene I would be very rich - but nowhere near as rich as if I wait for the patents to run out and the patent holder is not freeloading of and actual design for making the bloody stuff rather than extracting something they didnt invent from is natural source.

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Boffin

@Tom Re: interesting..

You got down voted because your post doesn't make sense when you apply game theory to it.

If you're the patent holder and you're charging too much to license your patent, bad things could happen.

1) You could in theory lose your patent. (Extreme case where the courts would decide for the greater good.

2) You could be forced to accept FRAND. That is the courts would decide what would be a reasonable royalty payment.

3) You patent it to protect your rights so that you can make money, so you want people to use it and expand on products that could use it. You set the licensing fees (royalties) somewhat above what some would consider FRAND or you come up with a deal where you have a stake in their innovation.

All things run counter to your argument.

The truth is that its still not commercially viable yet.

Now if you could master a way to perform 3D printing using graphene and lay down ultra thin layers and then bond them... Now you have something that would be worth Billions! Hundreds of billions a year if fully exploited.

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@Tom 7 Re: interesting..

@Tom,

No, you wouldn't.

He who patents first wins. So you may have something that if documented would make it prior art and then invalidate the patent, yet you would lose too.

You would be better off setting FRAND and then work on licensing agreements that were more than just cash, but equity in their company and a share of any derivative patents they may create. You end up taking on some of the risk, but you will also end up with a larger war chest when you die.

Look at the FOSS model. Companies like Google like it because it means that when people join the Googleplex or Chocolate Factory, they are familiar with the ideas and concepts. Read: faster onboarding and less costs to train up staff. Facebook? They fund 5 engineers, Yahoo! funds 5 engineers, etc ... so that Facebook gets to use technology from 100s of people yet they are only funding 5. Cost of development goes down. So they win. Companies like Cloudera, Red Hat, etc ... again make money from selling support licenses where they pay for only a fraction of the support costs to the code base.

Again, we can see winners who play in the community.

So you're better off patenting your derivative process, license the graphene base patents and then working with others.

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Oxygen makes things burn brightly

Recharging an electric car sized battery would release large quantities of oxygen gas, which is a major fire hazard. NASA learnt this the hard way with Apollo 1.

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

Existing lead-acid batteries produce hydrogen, which can also be problematic. Any decent battery technology will store a lot of energy in a small space, and if it fails be hazardous.

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

Yes - because obviously we camn't vent the oxygen into the atmosphere.

Apollo 1 had a high pressure pure oxygen atmosphere - not quite comparable...

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

"Apollo 1 had a high pressure pure oxygen atmosphere"

As pure oxygen is toxic above 0.5 atmospheres, it seems unlikely it was both "pure" and "high pressure"....

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

"As pure oxygen is toxic above 0.5 atmospheres, it seems unlikely it was both "pure" and "high pressure"...."

I think it was both, an initial 100% oxygen at slightly higher than atmospheric reducing to 100% at ~1/3 atm. for almost all of the flight. I think after the fire they changed to using oxygen/nitrogen.

I didn't downvote BTW - you are quite correct about oxygen tox.

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

Apollo 1 had a high pressure pure oxygen atmosphere - not quite comparable...

True, but merely oxygen-enriched atmospheres are serious fire hazards. ISTR that above 29% O2, burning wood becomes difficult (impossible?) to extinguish with water.

OTOH venting O2 from battery charging to the open air would be harmless, and it can't be hard to build an O2 sensor which would let the car monitor the atmosphere around it while it is charging, and shut down the charging if some eejit has forgotten to connect the vent pipe to the car in his garage.

Gasoline isn't totally safe, either.

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

As pure oxygen is toxic above 0.5 atmospheres, it seems unlikely it was both "pure" and "high pressure"

And you'd be wrong. The spacecraft cabin was pressurised to 16.7psi with pure oxygen, the idea being that during launch the pressure would be reduced to around 5psi when in space. The crew were fully suited and breathing from a different supply.

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

Can you define what a large quantity of Oxygen is?

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IT Angle

Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

"Can you define what a large quantity of Oxygen is?"

640K atoms. That should be enough for anybody, surely?

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Re: Oxygen makes things burn brightly

"NASA learnt this the hard way with Apollo 1."

What NASA learned is that 100% oxygen at 17psi (atmosphere is about 14 and partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen is about 3-4) is a spectacularly bad idea.

At that kind of concentration velcro will burn explosively (which is what happened once a spark happend)

Recharging a battery can release significant quantities of both hydrogen and oxygen already but basic safety precautions deal with that. Traction batteries are larger but the principle is the same.

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Oh look, another magic battery technology

Why is that even worth reporting on anymore? It feels like there's at least one "breakthrough" discovery made each month, and none of them have anything to show in terms of actual usable hardware so far.

Neat? Maybe. Useful? Maybe in 10–20 years.

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Re: Oh look, another magic battery technology

"Why is that even worth reporting on anymore?"

Because it's likely to be interesting to people who read tech. news websites such as this one.

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Go

Re: Oh look, another magic battery technology

No, this is not another magic battery technology, it's a small but highly significant step in the ONLY - I repeat ONLY - electrochemical battery technology that has a cat's chance in hell of competing with hydrocarbon fuels effectively.

Lithium air has been like fusion - theoretically the energy is all there, but in practice building a practical battery has been nigh on impossible. This take the impossible to 'pretty hard and currently expensive'.

Which is a step closer to 'cheap as chips, stable and long lasting'.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Oh look, another magic battery technology

Downvote for failure to clarify: lithium ion can compete with hydrocarbon for a significant chunk of the market. The pricing trends are pretty clear on that, given that prices are already beating historic estimates.

Something with much higher density like lithium air would be needed to cover the combination of large+heavy+time-sensitive.

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@Itzman Re: Oh look, another magic battery technology

Not worthy of a down vote, but not completely correct.

The key issue of hydrocarbons (petrol) is that you have a relatively simple engine which can turn the potential energy of the petrol in to mechanical / kinetic energy, albeit not all that efficient where a lot of energy is given off as waste heat and pollutants.

Now if I could find an energy source which is cleaner... e.g. nuclear energy ... and I could then create a model of being able to store the energy for later use (batteries) and then be able to recharge the batteries on demand quickly... I would be able to replace the needs for petrol engines.

Considering that most vehicle travel less than 50 miles in a day.... lets say I created a car that ran on electricity and had a decent range so that I could travel daily and recharge overnight, I would be able to replace a lot of the cars on the road. If we increase the range of the electric car to that of a tank of petrol (~300 miles) then the differences become less. If I can also decrease the time to recharge the battery so that if someone needed to extend their range, it would make the car also more viable. If the cost of the electricity is less than the cost of the petrol... even better. Less moving parts, less maintenance, lower TCO.

Tesla does that, if you're comparing a luxury car to the Tesla S sedan.

So if we go towards Nuclear Energy, work on fusion energy... better storage solutions make the electric car more viable. What's interesting is that FORD did a lot of earlier work on electric cars which for some reason they haven't capitalized on. They could in fact make cars for Uber or taxi fleets but that's a different conversation.

The point is that the better storage (battery) the more viable the electric car becomes.

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Re: Oh look, another magic battery technology

Reg editors, can we please have an "obligatory post that someone always makes for a story of this type" icon? And can it automatically be attached to posts about the futility of new battery technologies, excessive graphene announcements, Linux on the desktop, Microsoft's evil deeds in the marketplace, the price of Oracle's products, the uncrackability of the one-time-pad, the wretchedness of any UI change, the foolishness of Big Data, dangers of the Cloud, inherent bugginess of C, the poor value of old technologies, the callowness of new ones, and irritation with people posting the same damn things over and over?

That'd be great. Cheers.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @Itzman Oh look, another magic battery technology

"If I can also decrease the time to recharge the battery so that if someone needed to extend their range, it would make the car also more viable."

And therein lies the big bug-a-boo about electric motors vs. ICE's: liquid hydrocarbon fuel is not only very energy dense but also very stable and easy to transport. It's extremely easy to fill your car with 30 liters or so of petrol or diesel; it only takes a few minutes with automated pumping systems. You can carry the stuff in anything from fuel cans to tanker trucks. No other fuel system has that level of ease of "recharging". You can't use pure electrics because that implies a physically-dangerous level of electrical flow. It's best to do it indirectly though some sort of fuel source.

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Re: @Itzman Oh look, another magic battery technology

You have almost described the General Motors 2016 Chevey Volt the second generation model. It has an approx. range on battery of 53 miles plus with a petrol ICE backup, 400 plus mile range. With an all battery model the Bolt in 2017 with 200 mile range. The missed point about battery energy density is it does not have to equal petrol/gasoline by a long way. As an ICE is only 25% efficient so only a quarter of a tank is used. On electricity the electric motor is up at 90% plus so the battery does not need to store as much energy to go the same distance by a factor of about 3. This means approx. 3 kw/kilo Li air battery would equal a gallon of fuel. Li air has the potential for 10 kw/kilo so if this can be productionised and super fast charged then hydrocarbon fuels are dead and please do not mention hydrogen/fuel cell without doing the energy audit from well to wheel as it's truly terrible.

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Re: @Itzman Oh look, another magic battery technology

"3 kw/kilo Li air battery would equal a gallon of fuel. Li air has the potential for 10 kw/kilo"

Can you clarify your units - you are using power when you should be using energy.

Petrol is ~32MJ/L or ~ 44MJ/kg - it's a rapidly moving target but a Li-ion is ~~ 1MJ/kg . Now I take your point about efficiency but given the very variable sources of electricity , transmission distance & losses, charging/discharging efficiency and motor losses I'd guess we are a long way from 90% overall at the moment. On the other hand it's good to see such a potential improvement.

Just seen a report of potentially 'cheap' magnesium/iron batteries for non-traction uses :-

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151104095223.htm

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Anonymous Coward

Did I miss the part...

Where they talked about how much more energy these things can store? History, design, chemistry, recharge efficiency seems to be all there but how much more energy it could store was vague at best?

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Re: Did I miss the part...

"Where they talked about how much more energy these things can store? History, design, chemistry,"

It sounds like a fair step forward in absolute energy density but AFAIK* the output current is low for reasonable efficiency. Still these are very early days - this is a paper in Science after all.

* writing from memory, I've read about this a week or two ago but can't find where. In fact I thought it was published in Nature. In fact Nature has just published a supplement all about batteries. It will probably tell most people far more than they want to know.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v526/n7575_supp/index.html

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Re: Did I miss the part...

Looking at the orginal release the energy storeage is roughly 10 times higher by weight

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Childcatcher

Re: Did I miss the part...

But what will be the weight of the dirty great case needed to contain it.

It's all about very small bombs now, you know... has to go under the driver's seat etc.

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Re: Did I miss the part...

Energy density is close to hydrocarbon fuels weight for weight.

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Re: "how much more energy it could store"

It's about reducing weight rather than increasing total storage. Removing metals from one electrode shouldn't make much difference to volume but shave off a lot of weight.

This is unlikely to end up in your phone where volume is the constraint, for a car that's a lot of mass not being hauled around. The battery efficiency may be no better than Li-ion but it's energy will be used more efficiently.

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