Lithium-Air EV Batteries Tapped For Net Zero Economy Of The Future

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The search for new high-performing, ultra-energy dense EV batteries has taken off in some interesting directions. The latest news involves lithium-air batteries, a field that seemed destined for the dustbin of automotive history just a few years ago. Nevertheless, the US Department of Energy has tapped four different Li-air projects in a new round of funding aimed at developing new batteries powerful enough to move full-sized airplanes, locomotives, and seagoing vessels, too.

The Long Road To Lithium-Air EV Batteries

The idea of a lithium-air formula for EV batteries was among the first high risk, high reward projects to cross the desk of the Energy Department’s ARPA-E funding office, which went into operation in 2009 with a $400 million assist from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In 2010 ARPA-E tapped the lithium energy storage innovator PolyPlus Battery Company to open up a pathway for developing a commercial lithium-air EV battery. “Li-Air batteries are better than the Li-Ion batteries used in most EVs today because they breathe in air from the atmosphere for use as an active material in the battery, which greatly decreases its weight,” ARPA-E noted.

“Li-Air batteries also store nearly 700% as much energy as traditional Li-Ion batteries,” they added.

Another lithium-air EV battery projected crossed the CleanTechnica radar in 2011, when we noted that “lithium-air batteries are much lighter than their lithium-ion counterparts, giving them vast potential for use in electric vehicles and portable devices.”

Doing the math, that was 13 years ago. If you’re wondering what’s taking so long, that’s a good question.

One answer is that some of the earlier innovators have moved on to other projects. PolyPlus, for example, completed its first ARPA-E contract in 2012. The company has since moved on to other fields and was recently named as a “key player” in the lithium-sulfur EV battery market. ARPA-E tapped PolyPlus for another energy storage project in 2020, but this one was focused on developing the company’s signature lithium-glass laminate for high volume, roll-to-roll manufacturing.

One Step Closer To The Lithium-Air EV Batteries Of The Future

Meanwhile, others have picked up the lithium-air torch, including the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. In February of 2023 a team of researchers at Argonne reported progress on a solid-state variation of the technology, stating that “the team’s battery chemistry with the solid electrolyte can potentially boost the energy density by as much as four times above lithium-ion batteries, which translates  into longer driving range.”

The lab also gave an assist to a solid state lithium-air project at the Illinois Institute of Technology, spearheaded by assistant professor of chemical engineering Mohammad Asadi. He reported his findings in the journal Science under the title, “A room temperature rechargeable Li2O-based lithium-air battery enabled by a solid electrolyte.

As described by Illinois Tech, Asadi combined a ceramic and a polymer to form his solid state electrolyte. The new battery achieved high-performance charging cycles at room temperature, a first for lithium-air batteries.

“The battery design has the potential to store one kilowatt-hour per kilogram or higher—four times greater than lithium-ion battery technology, which would be transformative for electrifying transportation, especially heavy-duty vehicles such as airplanes, trains, and submarines,” Illinois Tech observed.

Lithium-Air Batteries For Heavy-Duty Applications

That heavy-duty angle dovetails neatly with ARPA-E’s aspirations for the EV battery of the future, by which they mean batteries capable of powering aircraft, locomotives, and ships. Last September, ARPA put out the call for new energy storage solutions under its new PROPEL-1K funding program, which calls for batteries that can meet or blow past a 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram (or 1,000 watt-hours per liter) benchmark. That’s more than four times the energy density improvement over the current state of technology, according to ARPA-E.

ARPA-E does not expect results overnight, but the office does point out that more and better energy storage systems are necessary to arrive at net zero economy by 2050, and the early stage research has to start now.

“Historically, energy storage devices have developed and commercialized over extended timelines,” ARPA-E notes, citing the example of the lithium-ion EV battery. The foundational technology was discovered in the 1970s, commercial applications took another 20 years or so to emerge, and another 20 years went by before industry scale-up enabled lithium-ion technology to dominate the mass-market EV battery field.

“Assuming that ‘1K’ technologies are possible, development needs to begin now to realize meaningful impact toward the 2050 net zero climate goal,” ARPA-E concluded.

All Hands On Deck For The 2050 Net Zero Goal

ARPA-E announced the winning projects for PROPEL-1K funding earlier this week, and it’s no surprise to see Illinois tech and the lithium-air battery in the mix.

The school is getting an award of $1.5 million to continue working on its solid-state lithium-air battery. “The inexpensive battery materials in IIT’s technology improves supply chain resilience, and the battery could have up to three to four times greater energy density than current lithium-ion batteries,” ARPA-E observes.

The new PROPEL-1K round of funding also includes three other lithium-based projects that could wind up playing a role in new EV battery technology. The company And Battery Aero is tasked with developing a new lightweight battery tailored for aviation applications, and the University of Maryland is working on a new low-cost lithium-based chemistry.

The Flow Battery Of The Future

The third other lithium-air project is especially interesting because it integrates lithium-air technology into a flow battery.

Flow batteries have begun to emerge in stationary applications, and CleanTechnica has also taken note of a forthcoming crossover into EV batteries. The PROPEL-1K program could help push things along.

ARPA-E tapped Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri to develop a lithium-air flow battery that features an oxygen-saturated liquid. “Preliminary experimental results have demonstrated a tenfold increase in capacity using a circulating electrolyte,” ARPA-E notes.

Aluminum-air technology is another variation on the theme. ARPA-E has tasked the New York firm Wright Electric to work with Columbia University on an aluminum-air flow battery designed for applications where fast refueling turnaround is essential, such as aircraft. The new battery will feature anodes that can be swapped out for recharging.

Another project in the flow battery field comes under the umbrella of the Georgia Tech Research Corporation, which is working on a new flow battery partly inspired by the fuel injection technology deployed by internal combustion engines.

ARPA-E Carves Out Space For Fuel Cells

ARPA-E is casting a wide net to reel in the EV battery of the future, so it’s no surprise to find fuel cells in the mix for heavy-duty transportation applications. In accord with ARPA-E’s focus on emerging high risk, high reward technologies, most of the awarded projects have not crossed the CleanTechnica radar until now.

On-board hydrogen storage is one of the challenges involved in the mobile fuel cell field, so ARPA-E has tasked the Virginia company Aurora Flight Sciences to work on a solid oxide fuel cell that deploys hydrogen from the combustion of aluminum. The Massachusetts firm Giner will develop a hydrogen-magnesium paste, and a team from Johns Hopkins University will deploy methylcyclohexane as a hydrogen carrier.

Another approach is represented by Washington State University, which is working on a project that combines ceramic fuel cell technology with liquid hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen is also the solution for the Connecticut firm Precision Combustion, which will develop a hybrid system that combines a fuel cell and a small battery.

To be clear, the entire round of funding is aimed at heavy duty applications. Applying new EV battery technologies to passenger cars is a different matter in terms of markets, supply chains and fueling opportunities. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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