The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has developed a lithium-air battery that could significantly increase the range of electric vehicles. The new design could one day replace lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, and power cars, domestic airplanes and long-haul trucks.

Scientists test a lithium car battery in a battery research facility. (Photo by Monty Rakusen via Getty Images)

The lithium-air battery uses a solid electrolyte instead of the typical liquid variety, potentially boosting the battery’s energy density by as much as four times above Li-ion batteries, which translates into a longer driving range. The new design is also not subject to the usual safety issues with the liquid electrolytes used in Li-ion and other batteries, which can overheat and catch fire. 

“For over a decade, scientists at Argonne and elsewhere have been working overtime to develop a lithium battery that makes use of the oxygen in air,” said Larry Curtiss, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow, in a press statement. “The lithium-air battery has the highest projected energy density of any battery technology being considered for the next generation of batteries beyond lithium-ion.”

“The chemical reaction for lithium superoxide or peroxide only involves one or two electrons stored per oxygen molecule, whereas that for lithium oxide involves four electrons,” adds Argonne chemist Rachid Amine. More electrons stored means higher energy density.

The new design is the first lithium-air battery to achieve a four-electron reaction at room temperature. It also operates with oxygen supplied by air from the surrounding environment, negating earlier designs’ need for oxygen tanks to operate.

Past lithium-air test cells suffered from very short cycle lives. The team established that this shortcoming is not the case for their new battery design by building and operating a test cell for 1,000 cycles, demonstrating its stability over repeated charge and discharge.

The research was published in a recent issue of Science and funded by the US Department of Energy.