We depend on batteries for many things in our modern world, most notably our laptop computers, smartphones and cars. Unlike the slim, hidden batteries inside our phones, however, the awkward, blocky batteries in our cars appear like Frankenstein’s monster: dangerous, ugly, and potentially lethal with its two exposed terminals—connecting the cables to jump-start a car always reminds us vaguely of defusing—or fusing?—a bomb.
Volkswagen, however, is working on taking the batteries that power our phones and computers (lithium-ion batteries) and making an improved version for electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars. This new type of battery even has a more natural appeal as it is called a lithium-air battery. Ion? Who needs ion? The future is all about air, much as hydrogen cars are all about water.
Lithium is a unique metal with a very dynamic composition which makes it perfect for the chemical reactiveness needed to generate and store energy as a battery. Air is, of course, a less tangible substance. Scientists believe that the potential reaction between the two is enough to store energy as densely as gasoline.
If this is possible, the next step would be to check how efficiently that energy can be transferred to the turning of a vehicle’s wheels. In that regard electric vehicles have an advantage as their motors are better at transferring energy than internal combustion engines.
In practical terms, all of this science-talk means that electric vehicles could have much higher ranges than they currently do, would need to be recharged much less often, could offer much greater performance, and could take up less physical space in a vehicle and thereby increase the energy efficiency of the vehicle, as well. The goal of making an electric vehicle as robust as a gas-powered one is becoming more and more likely.
As with most “ground-breaking” new ideas, it actually isn’t a new idea at all—lithium-air batteries were initially proposed during the smog-heavy days of the 1970s—but rather one that technology is only now making feasible. And the timing couldn’t be better with the overall trend of automobiles leaning toward PHEVs and electric drivetrains. It’s good to know that VW isn’t resting on its laurels any more than Dr. Frankenstein.