IBM, researchers get 24M DOE supercomputer hours to develop controversial lithium air battery

IBM is a big proponent of the oft-controversial lithium-air battery

The Department of Energy and IBM are serious about developing lithium air batteries capable of powering a car for 500 miles on a single charge - a five-fold increase over current plug-in batteries that have a range of about 40 to 100 miles, the DOE said. 

The agency said 24 million hours of supercomputing time out of a total of 1.6 billion available hours at Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories will be used by IBM and a team of researchers from those labs and Vanderbilt University to design new materials required for a lithium air battery.  The calculations will be performed at Oak Ridge and Argonne, which house two of the world's top ten fastest computers, the group said. 

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IBM is a big proponent of the oft-controversial lithium-air battery. The controversy surrounds the fact that they tend to be expensive and use an energy-dense, highly flammable metal, to react with the readily available oxygen in the air. 

According to IBM: "Because they use air that's pulled into the battery as needed, rather than store a second reactant inside the cell, lithium-air batteries could have an energy density of more than 5,000 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). That's ten times the energy available from the top lithium-ion batteries today, and begins to get closer to the 13,200 Wh/kg energy density of gasoline." 

 In its DOE supercomputer research proposal IBM said that the "exciting proof-of-principle work still presents very big scientific challenges before one can be confident that practical propulsion batteries can be based on the Li/Air system. The most important ones are to realize a high percentage of the theoretical energy density, to improve electrical efficiency of recharging, to increase the number of times the battery can be cycled, to limit the negative effects of moisture in the air, and to improve the power density. To this end, our research project is focused on understanding (1) the mechanisms of Lithium/Air cell discharge and recharge reactions, (2) the role and selection of catalyst and cathode surface properties, (3) the solubility of lithium ion and lithium oxides and optimization of electrolyte, and (4) the reactions occurring at the electrode-electrolyte interface." 

"The obstacles to Li-air batteries becoming a viable technology are formidable, but the modeling and simulation capabilities of DOE's supercomputers will help us accelerate the innovations required in materials science, chemistry and engineering," said Argonne Director Eric Isaacs in a statement. 

The Lithium-air work is part of  the DOE's Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program, that doles out computer resources to let scientists and engineers conduct cutting-edge research in weeks or months rather than the years. 

INCITE awards given out this week include research in:

  • Energy, including advanced systems for fusion energy and nuclear power, and improving combustion to increase efficiency and reduce emissions to develop safe and renewable energy
  • Environment, highlighting research into carbon sequestration, developing better insight of natural phenomena like earthquakes and hurricanes, and developing near-zero-emissions combustion devices
  • Climate change, featuring projects to improve climate models, understand global warming, study the effects of turbulence in oceans, and simulate clouds on a global scale
  • Biology, including understanding protein membranes to improve drug discovery, diagnostics and better treatment of diseases. 

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