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

Instead, lithium-ion batteries rely on four basic components: a positively charged cathode, a negative anode, an electrolyte “bridge” that allows lithium ions to flow between the two, and a separator that keeps the chemical components from combining in an explosive reaction. Charging the battery forces lithium ions to move from the cathode to the anode, where they are stored. When the battery is used, the lithium ions discharge the battery’s stored electricity as they flow back to the cathode.

Unfortunately, it only sounds simple. Each component must be made from complex compounds, synthesized and engineered to balance maximum energy storage with maximum stability and safety. As battery researchers seek new ways to coax energy out of lithium, the technological advances become ever more nuanced and arcane. Yet Fletcher succeeds in making these battery technologies fairly comprehensible to a lay reader, as when he explains the workings of a breakthrough in anode chemistry: “Lithium ions flee the carbon-based electrode and swim across the electrolyte to the cathode,” he writes. “Once they arrive, they burrow into the crystalline lattice of the cobalt oxide, docking into place.” In that battery system, Fletcher explains, the cathode resembles an “atomic Jenga puzzle.”

Fletcher is equally at ease in describing the effects of America’s roller-coaster energy policy, which has led to repeated cycles of brisk acceleration and sudden unexpected stops in our battery research programs. When it comes to energy technology research, as former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger once said, “We have only two modes—complacency and panic.”

Over the decades, complacency has tended to muffle interest in energy innovations. In 1979, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the federal budget invested about $7.8 billion in energy-related research. In fiscal year 2010, that investment had fallen to $5.1 billion. That figure represents a substantial increase over the budgets of the previous decade, but it’s still woefully short of the $16 billion annual national investment recommended by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Against this landscape of scarce funding and intermittent public interest, Fletcher presents a handful of eminent scientists and engineers in academia and private industry whose innovative thinking—and old-fashioned hard work—are making lithium battery-powered cars a reality. One vivid example is the story of John Goodenough, an American physicist turned solid-state chemist who developed a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode while at Oxford University in the late 1970s. At the time, no commercial companies were interested in the new technology, so Goodenough signed away his patent rights to a British research lab—only to see the cathode technology licensed and commercialized by Sony and used in almost every mobile phone, laptop, and digital camera in the world. Now, Fletcher reports, the eighty-eight-year-old inventor tells the story of his lost patent with “a bellowing laugh.”

But the international race to create—and manufacture—viable lithium-based car batteries is no laughing matter. And today, at least, it appears that the United States is a serious contender to lead in that race. A recent report by a veteran consultant to the battery industry compared all costs of manufacturing batteries in China and the United States, and found that U.S. manufacturing can be cost competitive. Advanced battery manufacturing is highly automated, which reduces the Chinese advantage of low-cost, low-skilled labor; the salaries of highly educated, skilled workers to run the factories are roughly equivalent. Chinese utility costs are twice as high as ours here in the United States. Add in the cost of shipping big, heavy car batteries around the world, and you’ve got a real market opportunity for U.S. battery makers.

As Fletcher’s history teaches us, however, an opportunity is not a sure thing. The playing field could be tilted dramatically by foreign government investment—like the $30 billion in low-cost loans the China Development Bank provided to Chinese solar manufacturers last year. If China or another foreign government makes that type of massive investment in lithium battery manufacturing, yet another great U.S. research breakthrough could wind up being commercialized and developed into a thriving new industry far from home.

Those risks are real. But the grim prospect of losing yet another new high-tech industry to foreign competitors makes those risks worth taking. With affordable capital to cover the up-front costs of building advanced battery manufacturing plants factories here, I believe we have a real chance to be competitive in a large and growing world market—once we have the lithium battery technology to challenge the internal combustion engine. And that, of course, is the challenge at the heart of Bottled Lightning.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book itself. First, in choosing the protagonists of his story, Fletcher pays scant attention to the vital contribution of the National Laboratory system—in particular, Argonne National Laboratory, where I am director. Argonne’s leading role in the creation of advanced battery technologies dates back to the late 1990s. Our work has led to high-energy lithium-ion battery cells that are cheaper, safer, and more powerful—a rare hat trick in energy research. LG Chem, a battery manufacturing giant, licensed our technology and created the battery supplied for the 2011 Volt—a story that Fletcher largely overlooks.

Second, while the book’s final chapter reviews some promising ideas for new battery systems beyond the lithium-ion variety, these are only a handful among dozens and dozens of battery research initiatives currently being worked on in labs throughout the U.S. and the world. (Google “new lithium battery technology” and you’ll see what I mean.) Given the speed of discovery and innovation in this field, the batteries that Fletcher showcases as promising technologies of the future may be overshadowed, or even outdated, by the time Bottled Lightning comes out in paperback.

I don’t mean to sound overly optimistic; we still have a long way to go to create a battery system that can rival the energy stored in a tank of gas. We have to solve some knotty scientific puzzles, using technology we haven’t invented yet. For example, we know that a battery using air as a cathode could offer energy density up to ten times higher than today’s lithium-ion batteries. But first, we have to discover a way to make a battery that “breathes in” oxygen from the air to discharge electricity, then “breathes out” again to recharge. Then we have to convert those discoveries into battery systems that can be affordably mass produced, we have to put these technologies into cars that consumers want to buy, and we have to do it all before our international competitors catch up. But, as Fletcher comments, “[t]here are a couple of ways to react to this sort of discouraging calculus. One is defeatism. The other is research.”

Fletcher understands that, ultimately, this is a battle of economics, not technology: “Dollars per kilowatt-hour stored is all that matters.” Our long-term goal is to create car battery systems that are smaller, sturdier, and about ten times more powerful than the ones we have today. But as one analyst told Fletcher, if the price of the current generation of car batteries comes down far enough—or if the price of gasoline goes high enough—“It’s game over for gasoline.”

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.