Batteries That Breathe

Using oxygen as a cathode could give lithium batteries 10 times the energy

2 min read

With the launch of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, it's been a big year for electric vehicles, but their batteries still have a fairly limited range without a recharge. For a car running on today's lithium-ion batteries to match the range provided by a tank of gasoline, you'd need a lot more batteries, which would weigh down the car and take up too much space.

But what if you could take away one of the electrodes in a battery and replace it with air? Researchers estimate that a lithium-air battery could hold 5 to 10 times as much energy as a lithium-ion battery of the same weight and double the amount for the same volume. In theory, the energy density could be comparable to that of gasoline.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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