If it weren't for Bolivia, the electric car industry wouldn't be zipping quite as energetically as it is right now. Lithium carbonate is not an overly abundant mineral and nearly every auto manufacturer is banking on the reserve of lithium that rests quietly in the Bolivian Andes, representing more than one half of the world's supply.

Lithium batteries, while lighter and longer-lasting than then their nickel-cadmium and lead-acid predecessors, are not easily recycled and are prone to problems when they encounter high humidity and heat conditions.

But in one fell swoop, an announcement last week from the Technion-Israel Institute may rather quickly make the lithium-ion battery a thing of the past.

The joint research project led by three scientists in three continents — Yair Ein-Eli of Technion, Digby Macdonald of Penn State University, and Rika Hagiwara of Kyoto University — has yielded a working prototype of the battery which dispenses with the typical heavy, metal-based cathode structure and replaces it with something much lighter ... air.

The anode is inexpensive, totally nontoxic and biodegradable — oxidized silicon. The current prototype is not rechargeable but can last for thousands of hours and according to Ein-Eli, a rechargeable consumer battery may be available within five years.

Car batteries could be as little as 10 years away, and these batteries will not have any of the disposal issues of batteries past. Silicon, as Ein-Eli explains, "... will turn into sand that would be recycled into silicon and then into power again."

And cars are just the beginning. A lightweight and inexpensive energy storage system with high energy capacity could be a perfect companion for intermittent fuel stocks like solar and wind, making renewable energy easy to store and distribute.

Silicon, the new lithium?
A new breakthrough may bring silicon-air batteries to market in less than 5 years. Is it time for lithium-ion to step aside?