May 18, 2010
Lithium Air Batteries Still A Distant Prospect

Lithium air batteries are one of the great hopes for high energy density batteries that would enable long range driving under electric power. MIT battery researcher Yang Shao-Horn thinks lithium air batteries aren't coming to market in the next 10 years.

But before the technology goes commercial, researchers have to pass a gantlet of scientific challenges. A material may "breathe" oxygen into the battery excellently, but it has little commercial potential if it's platinum or gold. Lithium in the anode reacts explosively with even a little water, so it must be sheltered with a stable and, yes, cheap substance.

Argonne guesses lithium-air could be 10 to 20 years from commercial readiness; Shao-Horn of MIT has said 10 years is probably too optimistic.

The battery range problem effectively means that Peak Oil will cause a big relative increase in the cost of long range driving as compared to shorter trips. If you can get by with 10 or 20 mile range for work and shopping then future high gasoline prices won't hit you hard. But 400 mile trips will require an internal combustion engine and expense diesel or gasoline fuel.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 May 18 10:46 PM  Energy Batteries


Comments
random said at May 19, 2010 11:20 AM:

"Some researchers stick a battery cell in an oven for a year, gradually turning up the heat to 113 degrees and then 131 degrees Fahrenheit. Others dunk it in a swimming pool. Others short the battery and see if it blows up. One Department of Energy researcher shot a battery with a nail gun."

Sounds like a fun job.


Has anyone seen/heard much about Ultracapacitors lately? Seems like there has been a lot more development/news on the battery front.

Nick G said at May 19, 2010 12:21 PM:

The battery range problem effectively means that Peak Oil will cause a big relative increase in the cost of long range driving as compared to shorter trips. If you can get by with 10 or 20 mile range for work and shopping then future high gasoline prices won't hit you hard. But 400 mile trips will require an internal combustion engine and expense diesel or gasoline fuel.

I agree, but I have a quibble about "big relative increase".

A Volt would take you the first 40 miles on battery, and then 360 miles on fuel. It's likely to get 60MPG after a couple of generations of optimization, so that's 6 gallons of fuel. At, say $10 per gallon, that's only $60.80 bucks (including $.80 for the electricity) and $.15/mile (the average American is paying about $.14 per mile right now). If you have 4 people in the car, that's only $15 per person and $.04/mile. Not bad.

Chris T said at May 19, 2010 1:27 PM:

Most trips undertaken in the United States are short range. If an increasing number of those trips are made using alternative energy sources, the demand of oil will fall and this will create downward pressure on price and slow the depletion of the oil supply. Even without the fall in price, people will probably not be overly bothered by high prices for the occasional long distance trip. Technology, in the mean time, will continue to march on.

Nick G said at May 19, 2010 3:49 PM:

Exactly.

Randall Parker said at May 19, 2010 7:18 PM:

Guys,

Clearly one of America's advantages is our SUVs. We can switch from SUVs to 50+ mpg hybrids when oil gets really expensive. Most people can double their fuel efficiency. So we've got that going for us as we approach the world down slope in oil production.

But oil gets used for more industrial purposes (trucks, trains, plastics, farm tractors, farm water pumps, etc) where business calculations already tend to favor more efficient ways to use energy. I've read that trucks alone use 2.5 million gallons per day of diesel. It is a lot easier to double the efficiency of the average car (switch to smaller and hybrid vehicles) than the average long haul truck. So I worry more about industry - you know, where most of work to get the money to pay for the cars and gasoline.

I also worry about the lag time for shifting to fuel efficient vehicles once the public finally realizes that oil production is going to drop. Nick, we both know that cars drive over half their miles in their first 6 years of ownership. But most people can not afford new cars and the auto industry won't be able to shift their mix of cars over to all hybrids in a year or two once oil production starts clearly to decline. Battery production won't scale up fast enough and ditto for lithium mining and perhaps nickel mining as well.

So I worry about the transition period.

I also worry about the period beyond the initial 5 years of decline. Gasoline prices might well go much higher than $10 per gallon. Certainly its availability will continue to decline.

Chris T said at May 19, 2010 8:13 PM:

Oil production need not decline or even level off for conservation or substitution. So long as the price is high relative to alternatives and appears likely to remain high, people will change. Price remains high until demand is brought back into equilibrium with supply. Case in point, oil consumption in the United States has been dropping since 2005 in the face of higher prices (jet fuel consumption has had a sustained drop for even longer). Alternatives exist for everything you mentioned, but are currently (or were recently) more expensive. The upside of alternatives is that they are likely to get less expensive as economies of scale kick in and better production methods are devised, spurring faster adoption.

The demand for lithium and rare earth metals is skyrocketing and money is pouring into their extraction. The same situation was faced by silicon a couple of years ago; demand rose faster than production increasing price and spurring new production.

The most dangerous action we can take by far is to artificially suppress oil prices (oil taxes should be raised, preferably). China is a huge problem here.

KT said at May 20, 2010 2:31 PM:

I'd like to see more investments into liquid-fluoride thorium reactors so that they come online not too long after the big wave of electrification. Getting rid of coal plants is crucial to make a really big difference.

If you don't know about thorium reactors, this is a good intro:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZR0UKxNPh8

Nick G said at May 20, 2010 3:56 PM:

But oil gets used for more industrial purposes (trucks, trains, plastics, farm tractors, farm water pumps, etc) where business calculations already tend to favor more efficient ways to use energy

Business has a lot of priorities. There's no question that business has a sharper pencil than individual consumers, but don't overestimate the difference. For instance, truckers, taxi-drivers and other commercial drivers put a very, very high premium on standardization, ease of maintenance, and economies of scale for purchase price. They're not going to move to a new model quickly, despite a temporary peak in fuel prices. For instance, Fedex and UPS are moving very slowly to hybrids and EVs - they're all waiting for that tipping point, where someone mandates efficiency, or someone else puts in the big order that brings the price down.

Walmart is working on providing that push that will provide the "phase-change" of transition, by using their purchasing power to push their vendors, especially their truckers.

I worry about the transition period.

Yes, that's the problem. Fortunately, we are on the way, with every big car maker getting more or less serious about EV/EREV/PHEVs. Chris T is correct: commodity supplies may have a temporary problem, but it will correct itself in several years.

Gasoline prices might well go much higher than $10 per gallon. Certainly its availability will continue to decline.

I think that's highly unlikely. There are too many users who would go to substitutes, and do it quite quickly. I don't think oil will ever go above an inflation adjusted $200 for, say, a full year. Don't forget, Chinese and Indian consumers & manufacturers have the same substitutes available, and price controls and subsidies will not survive $200 oil.

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