When will the first prototype of a new Lithium Air Battery power a car on public roads ?
Lithium based batteries have received considerable attention over the past 40 years, especially since the introduction of the first commercial cells 20 years ago. Lithium based batteries have shown high performance mostly in part to the high specific energy densities intrinsic to lithium based materials. Coincident with investigation of lithium battery technologies, metal-air batteries, specifically zinc, have received attention due to the very high energy densities associated with their design. The high theoretical specific energy densities for metal-air batteries are possible due to the use of atmospheric oxygen as the cathode, eliminating a traditional cathode structure. Recently, lithium-air batteries have been proposed as the next step in lithium battery architecture, due to the high specific energy density of lithium with respect to air (3840 mAh/g).
Currently, many challenges prevent the realization of high-performance lithium-air batteries. Substantial difficulties are faced in preparing structures for the precipitation of lithium peroxide at the cathode. In addition, the cathode must be made electrically conductive. Currently, porous carbon electrodes are the material of choice, but pore clogging by lithium peroxide in aprotic systems must be balanced with the need for oxygen permeation. Several catalysts have been used to improve cathode performance, with MnO2 being the material of choice. The actual mechanism of improvement due to catalyst activity is not yet clear, but it is theorized it may alter the structure of the oxide deposits. Significant challenges have also been faced at the pure lithium anode. Dendritic lithium deposits, long a problem in lithium-ion batteries, can eventually lead to shorting of the battery. In addition, current electrolytes are often unstable with respect to the lithium anode, necessitating a need for new electrolytes or a redesigned electrolyte/anode interface. Further complicating the design of lithium-air batteries is degradation of battery materials by atmospheric contaminants, such as water vapor.
Despite the need for innovation in key areas of research and design related to creating a fully functional, high-efficiency lithium-air battery, the applications of such a battery are far reaching. The significant increase in energy density afforded by a lithium-air battery opens opportunities for lithium based power storage that current lithium based batteries could not hope to fulfill.
A major driving force in lithium-air battery development is the demand for advanced battery technology for the automotive sector. The energy density of gasoline is approximately 13 kWh/kg, which corresponds to 1.7 kWh/kg of energy provided to the wheels when accounting for losses. The theoretical energy density of the lithium-air battery is 12 kWh/kg excluding the oxygen mass. It has been theorized that a practical energy density of 1.7 kWh/kg at the wheels of an automobile could be realized when accounting for over-potentials, other cell components, battery pack ancillaries, and the much higher efficiency of electric motors.
In a nearer future, proponents of the technology expect lithium-air batteries to replace the lithium-ion batteries currently powering portable electronic devices. Lithium-air batteries have the potential to have 5-15 times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries. Thus even the most conservative estimates indicate that a modern-day lithium-ion battery may someday be replaced by a lithium-air battery 1/5 the size or a lithium-air battery with a lifespan 5 times as long. Whether lithium-air batteries lead to reduced battery sizes or longer lasting batteries, the potential for a vast reduction in price or a vast increase in vehicle range is an attractive consequence of developing such battery technology.
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