As the Obama administration searches for a breakthrough battery, it will have company -- a 100-year-old U.S. company doing the research on its own dime.
IBM, better known for its computers and mainframes, has spent two and a half years researching lithium-air batteries, a technology that could eliminate the gap between gasoline cars and electric cars, if it works.
In late 2009, IBM applied for a Department of Energy grant to defray some of the cost of this risky research. But DOE chose to fund two other lithium-air projects -- not IBM's.
All the grants occurred under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.
IBM's choice to continue the research puts it in a rare category: a big company willing to take a big risk.
Scientists are cooking up new materials, firing up supercomputers, and engineering prototypes in an attempt to overcome the basic scientific hurdles behind lithium-air. Their goal is no less ambitious than ARPA-E's: an electric car that travels 500 miles on one charge.
Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for nanoscale science and technology at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California, said it's been tricky to make the battery rechargeable -- even to measure that it's recharging. But after seeing progress over the last six months, he said, "I have got a lot more optimistic that it will work, actually."
An old-fashioned approach to clean-tech risk
IBM wants a "substantial demonstration" or lab demo in three years, Wilcke said. He wouldn't say how much money or how many people it has put to the task. ARPA-E's lithium-air awardees received about $5 million and $1 million, respectively.
IBM's gamble swims against a 50-year trend. U.S. companies used to perform their own basic research, but they have increasingly turned this over to universities and the government. Today, most companies' research and development divisions focus on applied research -- work that is likely to make money for the company soon.
Michael Holman, research director at Lux Research, keeps an eye on breakthrough battery technologies like lithium-air. He calls IBM "a bit of a throwback" to a time when companies did "blue-sky" research.
Some companies still do this today, Holman said, not least because the "R&D playgrounds" attract great scientists.
When asked why IBM is pursuing this research, Wilcke observed that the company doesn't currently make its money in batteries: "We have the resources, we can think long-term."
He said world demand for cars is about to double, thanks to India and China. "Now we would have to be blind not to see the mother of all opportunities: environment and the clean world," he said.
In three years, Wilcke said, he should have enough information to either advance the technology with IBM's commercial partners, or to say, "Nah, doesn't work, shut it down. I'm perfectly willing to do the latter if it turns out to be the right thing to do."