On Political Books

November/ December 2011 Assault on Battery

The promising, frustrating, indispensable race by government and industry to revolutionize the storage of electricity.

By Eric D. Isaacs

Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy
by Seth Fletcher
Hill & Wang, 272 pp.

Just five years ago, the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? claimed to prove conclusively that American electric vehicle technology had been effectively buried by an unholy cartel of car makers, government bureaucrats, oil companies, and SUV-loving consumers. The documentary’s hard-hitting reporting and acerbic style persuaded thousands of moviegoers that American industry would never allow an electric car to challenge the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

That wasn’t just the opinion of a few cranky independent filmmakers: the electric car has been a running joke on The Simpsons for years. (On a family trip to a theme park, Homer and Bart visit the Electric Car of the Future attraction—sponsored by the Gasoline Producers of America. On the ride, their sad, pastel-pink vehicle whines, “Hello, I’m an electric car. I can’t go very fast or very far.”)

But now, GM’s Chevy Volt is being rolled out in cities across the country—and has been honored by Motor Trend as the 2011 Car of the Year: “A Car of the Future You Can Drive Today.” Other car makers are racing to get their electric cars on American roadways: the Nissan Leaf is already in a few American markets, with nationwide rollout planned for next year; Toyota has unveiled a plug-in Prius; Mitsubishi is bringing its MiEV electric vehicle to U.S. dealers this year; and an electric Ford Focus has been announced as well. These battery-powered vehicles are generating so much buzz that the producers of the 2006 documentary have been forced to make a sequel—The Revenge of the Electric Car.

How did electric cars come so far, so fast? And, more important, both for consumers and for the future of our country, where will they go from here? These are the questions posed—and at least partially answered—in Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, by Seth Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine. In this well-written, accessible history of lithium batteries and their role in the development of practical electric cars, Fletcher makes a strong case that new energy storage technologies are the key to a green industrial revolution.

“Electricity,” Fletcher explains, is “the cleanest and most flexible” alternative to gasoline. “It’s piped into every home in the country. Mile by mile, it’s cheaper compared with gasoline.… It can come from almost any source—natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind.” There’s just one problem: it’s hard to store. So if we want electric cars that aren’t powered by range-limiting extension cords, we need to build better batteries.

Historically, cars have been equipped with lead-acid batteries—heavy, environmentally unfriendly, and limited in storage capacity. So any car powered solely by a lead-acid battery—like the EV1 eulogized in Who Killed the Electric Car?—will have limited range (less than 100 miles) and will require frequent, time-consuming recharging.

Seeking a better alternative, scientists started “scouring the periodic table,” in Fletcher’s words, experimenting with various exotic chemical compounds before turning their sights on lithium, the lightest metal in the universe. Lithium’s “eagerness” to shed electrons, along with its light weight and energy density, have made it the basis for the small, powerful batteries that now power billions of cell phones, laptops, and iPods; lithium- based batteries have the theoretical potential to challenge, pound for pound, the energy and power stored in gasoline.

But there’s a major gap between that theoretical energy storage and even the best lithium-based batteries available today. Thus far, no one has invented advanced battery technologies that can rival the price, reliability, and energy storage capacity of a tank of gas. And building a better battery is only a first step toward reinventing our entire energy infrastructure.

But while the challenge is great, the potential rewards are enormous. If all of our cars and light trucks ran on electricity, we could cut American oil consumption by more than a third—roughly 7.2 million barrels of oil a day. Advanced grid-scale battery technologies would make it possible to store electricity generated by wind and solar for use when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Just as important, we could create tens of thousands of new green tech jobs in the long run—jobs that would stay right here at home. The implications for our global environment and our national energy security are enormous. But, as Fletcher warns, we can’t hope to reach those goals without strong, consistent investment in developing new energy technologies, including next-generation battery systems.

As the director of a National Laboratory, I have a deep-seated personal and professional interest in the future of energy research. And—like Fletcher—I see increasing reason for optimism about the potential of lithium-based batteries to transform our energy economy.

The economic potential of these “superbatteries” is immense: the research firm IHS Global Insight predicts that advances in battery technology will allow hybrids and electric cars to grab up to 15 percent of the world’s new car sales by 2020. At today’s production rates, that’s about 7.5 million cars a year.

Those rosy predictions have encouraged the Obama administration to place a heavy bet on the future of the electric car—specifically, on a new advanced battery manufacturing sector. Under the Recovery Act, the federal government invested $2.4 billion in forty-eight advanced battery and electric drive projects nationwide. Today there are more than half a dozen new advanced battery manufacturing plants near completion or up and running—and they are hiring new workers. Just a couple of months ago, lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems celebrated the hiring of its 1,000th worker at its new, stimulus-backed manufacturing plant in Michigan.

A visit to one of these sparkling clean, highly automated battery manufacturing plants seems like a trip into a brave new future of abundant green energy. But as Fletcher makes clear, the story of electric cars, and the battery technologies that power them, has been, in his words, “a parade of extraordinary failures stretching back to the late nineteenth century.” The first electric cars date to the time of Thomas Edison, when the quiet and sedate electrics were considered “ladies’ cars.” (In fact, Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, bought an electric brougham in 1914 because she considered her husband’s Model Ts too noisy.) Interest in electric vehicles has cyclically flared up every few decades ever since, usually in response to a spike in oil prices. But when gasoline costs have fallen, so has American consumers’ willingness to trade in their gas guzzlers for electric cars— at least, for the electric cars that have been available until now.

Fletcher does a great job of walking readers through the history of battery technology, and he writes about the complexities of science and engineering with clarity and flair. He sums up the fundamental challenge of energy storage technology in one pithy sentence: “You can’t just shove loose electrons in a can.”

Eric D. Isaacs is the director of the Argonne National Laboratory and professor of physics in the James Franck Institute at the Univeristy of Chicago.