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CES 2020: IBM and Daimler teaming up for a quantum leap in battery tech

The companies are working together with quantum computers to make lithium-sulfur batteries a viable replacement for lithium-ion cells.

Sure, it looks like a very fancy chandelier, but it's actually a quantum computer and it's helping Daimler develop new EV battery chemistries.

IBM
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Right now, we're living in a time where electric cars are really, genuinely good. They have long range capability, can charge in reasonable amounts of time, and are being marketed by automakers as serious vehicles, not novelties or something to sell only to stay in compliance with government regulations.

Still, genuinely good isn't good enough. Thus, people are looking for ways to improve the EV experience. Motors are already superpowerful and relatively efficient, so the next meaningful jump forward will likely come on the energy storage side of things, and many companies are banking on that jump being in the form of solid-state batteries.

Why solid-state batteries? Because, in theory, they will be lighter and more compact, more energy-dense and faster charging. Oh, and they'll likely be safer too with less of a possibility of a dangerous thermal runaway like lithium-ion. Only, here's the thing: they don't really exist yet.

Enter IBM (yes, that IBM), which at the CES 2020 show in Las Vegas on Tuesday announced that it had partnered with Daimler to leverage its considerable resources and research into quantum computing to help lick this solid-state battery problem once and for all.

How exactly are quantum computers helping to solve the complex problems that will lead to solid-state battery technology? Well, as the patron saint of grumpy people who swear a lot (Samuel L. Jackson) said in Jurassic Park, "Hold onto your butts."

In the most basic sense, the quantum computers from IBM have modeled the behavior of three different lithium-containing molecules. This, in turn, allows researchers to better understand how they will affect the energy storage and discharge properties that manufacturers are looking for in batteries. Specifically, simulating these molecules will enable scientists to find their "ground state" or most stable configuration.

This simulation of simple molecules is possible on traditional supercomputers, but it takes vast amounts of computing power and time, and as the molecules being simulated get more complex, the likelihood of errors gets bigger. Quantum computing gets around this by using the ideas of superposition (think Schrodinger's cat) and entanglement (aka Einstein's "spooky action at a distance") to much more efficiently evaluate much, much more data than a traditional computer.

Right now, the most promising of these new quantum computer-assisted potential battery chemistries -- according to IBM and Daimler, of course -- is lithium-sulfur. According to the research, lithium-sulfur batteries would be more powerful, longer-lasting and cheaper (the battery holy trinity) than today's lithium-ion cells.

So does this mean that we'll be seeing electric Benzes rolling around with sweet new lithium-sulfur batteries in the next year or two? Not really -- currently, neither company has offered an ETA on the tech -- but what it does mean is that researchers now have a leg up on developing the future of energy storage, and that's pretty damned cool.

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