Range anxiety, or concerns about how far electric vehicles will travel on a single charge, is one of the biggest limitations facing the EV industry. In fact, a recent survey said only 20 percent of American drivers would consider buying an EV with a 100-mile range. But what if EVs could drive 500 miles on a single charge? 

That’s exactly what one of America’s most innovative companies is working on. energyNOW! correspondent Josh Zepps looked under the hood of a next generation battery design that uses nanotechnology to make EVs more powerful than ever. The full segment is available below:

IBM invented many of the computing technologies we take for granted today: the floppy disk, personal computer, barcode, and hard drive, to name a few. Now, the company is turning its sights on meeting a different type of technological challenge – the electric vehicle battery. “Most people on the planet want to own a car,” said Winifried Wilcke, an IBM nuclear physicist. “I think that’s not going to change.” 

Wilcke and his team at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California are working on a revolutionary EV battery with ten times the energy density and five times the range of today’s most advanced batteries. Current EV batteries, which use the same lithium-ion technology as cell phones and laptops, only have a range of around 75 miles on a single charge, according to the EPA. In addition to the limited range, lithium-ion batteries are bulky and heavy, and represent much of the cost of an EV. 

So what sets IBM’s battery apart? The secret, according to researchers, is air. A lithium-ion battery contains heavy metals like cobalt oxide or manganese oxide and shuttles lithium between a graphite anode and metal oxide cathode as the battery is charged and discharged. 

A lithium-air battery, on the other hand, doesn’t carry around all the chemicals necessary to work. When it releases electricity, it borrows oxygen from the surrounding air to form lithium oxide. When it’s plugged in and recharging, it releases that oxygen back into the air. This saves space and mass, meaning a lighter battery that stores much more energy per pound. 

The IBM team is also working to reduce the weight of their 500-mile battery by ditching the heavy metal oxide cathodes for microscopic nanotechnology carbon cathodes. Nanoengineering the carbon is imperative in order for the team to increase the battery’s total charge. “We’ve looked at a lot of the different carbons, and we’ve found that if we have a high surface-area carbon, we can get much more capacity,” said Sally Swanson, an IBM researcher. 

While a 500-mile EV battery seems far off now, IBM thinks it can start commercial production of the long-range battery by 2020. Even though the project is complicated and might not work, the prospect of an EV engine with the same size, weight, price, range and performance of a gasoline engine is too much to resist for IBM’s researchers. “A high-tech company has an obligation really, to help the environment and the world,” said Wilcke.