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IBM working on battery breakthrough

IBM announced that it is developing a next-generation rechargeable battery capable of storing 10 times more energy than today's top lithium-ion batteries.

The new batteries could be used to power cars and store power for smart energy grids, according to IBM.

The company said it plans to discuss its work on the batteries at its Almaden Institute 2009 conference, which IBM said attracts “innovative thinkers” from academia, government research labs and industry. The 2009 gathering will be held Aug. 26 and 27 at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose.

“High-density, scalable energy storage technologies are emerging as the greatest game-changer for this new era of renewable energy sources and smarter grids,” said Sharon Nunes, vice president of IBM's Big Green Innovations organization, in a statement. “Today, the vast majority of the world's oil is burned for transportation. Energy sources such as wind and solar power fluctuate continuously. We believe the solution may lie in the development of an efficient, affordable energy storage network.”

IBM's multiyear battery research project will also involve the use of nanotechnology, materials science and supercomputing.

“Being able to store large amounts of electrical energy in a small package is critically important,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. “If we can't get higher energy densities in our batteries, then true electric cars are a non-starter.”

And Olds added that better batteries also are the key to advancing wind, solar, and tidal power.

“We can certainly generate energy from these sources, but the wind doesn't blow all the time and we also have 12 hours of night,” he said. “Without better storage technology, energy from these sources is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. Generating it is only half the battle. Efficiently storing it for use when we need it is the key for making alternative energy actually pay off.”

The IBM project is only the latest of several battery-related research initiatives disclosed in recent months.

In April, researchers at MIT reported that they were combining nanotechnology with genetically engineered viruses to build batteries that could power hybrid cars and cell phones. According to the university, the viruses, which infect bacteria but are harmless to humans, build the positively and negatively charged ends of lithium-ion batteries. In lab tests, batteries with the new material could be charged and discharged at least 100 times without losing any capacitance, MIT reported.

And before that, researchers at Stanford University reported using silicon nanowires to enable lithium-ion batteries to hold 10 times the charge they could before. That means a laptop that now holds a four-hour charge could last for 40 hours using the new battery, according to Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

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