Shape the Future

4 new ways to solve the energy challenge

January 5, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

In labs around the globe, scientists are working on radical technologies, from 500-mile car batteries to solar space farms.

By Stuart F. Brown and Anne VanderMey

1. Building a 500-mile car battery

The holy grail in the electric-car world is beating range anxiety: the fear you'll run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. Today's electrics, like the Nissan Leaf, have a range of about 100 miles, but scientists at IBM (IBM) are in hot pursuit of a better technology. In the 1990s researchers hypothesized that they could create energy by combining lithium with oxygen, making what is now referred to as a lithium-air battery. (See diagram below.) Today IBM and some 50 other labs globally are working on versions that would let an electric car go 500 miles a charge -- a potential game changer for models like BMW's i3 concept vehicle (above).

The challenges are massive -- recharging the battery is tricky, and durability is an issue. Also, to get the battery to release power quickly enough for passing requires expensive nanotechnology. "It remains a long shot, but we're excited by the potential," says Winfried Wilcke, IBM's lead researcher on the project. Big Blue sees a prototype by 2013 and commercialization as early as decade's end. --A.V.

NEXT: 2. Harnessing the sun's power

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