Mar 032011
 
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ARPA-e funds potential breakthrough work to make energy-dense batteries that enable long distance travel

Lithium spontaneously combusts in air, yet the battery in your computer—and any of the stacks in the new breed of electric vehicles—is made from it.

Lithium even burns in water, which is too bad because a lithium-water battery could be both cheap and powerful. Now battery-maker PolyPlus claims to have created such a battery by encasing the lithium in a special membrane that allows it to pass charge without melting down.

“Lithium is explosive in water,” Arun Majumdar, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, orARPA–e, which is funding PolyPlus’s development effort, noted at the agency’s second annual conference March 1. By ensconcing the lithium inside the membrane’s seal, the PolyPlus battery reacts safely with the oxygen dissolved in the water and delivers as much as 1,300 watt-hours per kilogram of electricity. “This is like a fish, but it’s a battery.”

PolyPlus is just one of several better battery-makers that ARPA–e is funding, all attempting to improve upon a standard lithium ion battery’s roughly 400 watt-hours per kilogram—the reason why all-electric cars don’t have the long distance range of a traditional automobile. The program—dubbed BEEST, for Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation—has funded 10 projects in all, ranging from rechargeable batteries composed entirely of solid materials to high-energy density capacitors. “Just like Intel Inside, I hope you have BEEST inside your electric cars in the future,” Majumdar said.

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