IBM Reveals “Staggering” New Battery Tech, Withholds Technical Details

IBM's claim comes with noteworthy specs, a list of commercial partners, and a glaring lack of peer-reviewed data

3 min read
IBM Research scientists have developed a battery chemistry that they say could lead to a cheaper, faster-charing, higher-performance and non-flammable battery potentially for electric vehicles, consumer devices and grid energy storage.
IBM Research scientists have developed a battery chemistry that they say could lead to a cheaper, faster-charging, higher-performance, and non-flammable battery that could potentially be used in electric vehicles, consumer devices, and grid energy storage.
Photo: IBM

IBM lifted the veil this week on a new battery for EVs, consumer devices, and electric grid storage that it says could be built from minerals and compounds found in seawater. (By contrast, many present-day batteries must source precious minerals like cobalt from dangerous and exploitative political regimes.) The battery is also touted as being non-flammable and able to recharge 80 percent of its capacity in five minutes.

The battery’s specs are, says Donald Sadoway, MIT professor of materials chemistry, “staggering.” Some details are available in a Dec. 18 blog posted to IBM’s website. Yet, Sadoway adds, lacking any substantive data on the device, he has “no basis with which to be able to confirm or deny” the company’s claims. 

Young-hye Na, materials innovation manager for IBM Research’s battery division, says IBM has partnered with Mercedes Benz R&D North America, as well as a Japanese chemical company (Central Glass) to refine the battery’s electrolyte, and a Silicon Valley battery startup (Sidus) to test the battery.

“In initial lab tests, our battery demonstrated hundreds to thousands of cycles with 80 percent retention of its original capacity,” Na says. The battery’s cycle life and ability to retain charge is, she says, a subject of ongoing investigation by the group.

Na says IBM has built prototype pouch battery cells in the lab which give her group confidence that they could develop a commercial product for limited applications (e.g. portable power tools) within one to two years. Developing the technology to compete with industry-standard lithium ions for electric vehicle powertrains will take, she says, a “longer time.”

To Sadoway’s frustration, the group has revealed precious little technical information about their battery’s chemistry, configuration, or design. No doubt trade secrets must always be guarded. But, he says, there’s a middle ground in which engineers, technologists, and potential industry partners can be satisfied with the publicly shared details about a battery’s operations—without giving the entire game away.

“If you’ve got something that’s truly remarkable, you want to disclose what it is,” Sadoway says. “Because presumably, they’ve already done their background work in terms of protecting intellectual property and so on. So it strikes me as kind of odd that they would make these announcements without providing any evidence to support them.”

Na says the seawater-derived materials in the battery—putting the “blue” in Big Blue—present an alternative future in which widespread battery production could be scaled up without being constrained by the availability of dwindling supplies of rare earths and so-called “conflict minerals.”

To extract source materials for the battery from seawater would not necessarily be a trivial operation, Na says. Extraction techniques may still need to be developed to harvest the needed quantities of the ocean’s dissolved substances—among them, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, magnesium, potassium, boron, strontium, and fluoride.

However, Na adds, “Extracting materials from seawater would still remain more environmentally friendly compared to the environmental impacts of terrestrial mining.”

“The details are just so scant. Who knows what it is?”

The formulation of the battery’s electrolyte (the medium through which electrons and ions travel during a battery’s charging and discharging cycles) is essential to configuring the device’s performance, Na says. As such, she says her team believes it can tweak the chemistry enough to make it competitive as a grid energy storage alternative—in which, she says, “cycle life and stability is key.”

Other performance boosts that IBM touts in its announcement include the battery’s reported improvement in cost, charging time, power/energy density, and energy efficiency.

Sadoway says he thinks the fact that IBM’s blog specifically calls out the battery’s non-reliance on either nickel or cobalt may indicate it’s still a lithium-based battery.

“Why would you call those out unless you’re trying to differentiate yourself from other people who are in the lithium space?” he says. “Otherwise you just say, ‘We use earth-abundant elements that are non-toxic and ethically sourced and guilt-free.’ It could either mean a new variant of lithium chemistry, whether it’s lithium ion or lithium metal. Or maybe it’s just a different chemistry altogether. … The details are just so scant. Who knows what it is?”

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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