Monday, November 14, 2016

Bottled Lightning by Seth Fletcher

Lithium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. It is also in important part of the small, light, energy-packed rechargeable batteries that make our portable devices possible. It is also likely an important part of future batteries that might make longer-running electric cars and large-scale energy storage possible. Journalist Seth Fletcher describes the history of lithium as a battery material, especially in batteries for electric and hybrid cars, in Bottled Lightning.

Fletcher goes way back to the batteries made by Alessandro Volta in 1800 and, possibly more important, the first rechargeable batteries made by Gaston Planté in 1859 (a lead acid battery).

Fletcher treats this older history briefly. Like his readers, he is not as interested in batteries as in the uses of energy batteries enable. One of these uses is transportation. Many early cars were electric vehicles (EVs) that were powered by batteries. The technology of the time required large batters to hold relatively modest charges, which limited the range of the cars. Gasoline held much more energy than batteries, was widely available and cheap. For most motorists, gasoline beat batteries hands down.

Of course, priorities and technologies change. The energy crisis of the 1970s, along with a growing environmental movement, pressured automakers to develop electric car concepts. The technology of the time probably wasn’t up to the task for what most drivers wanted, and in combination with a return of low oil prices and automotive industry inertia the electric car development of that era came to an end.

Technology rolled on, as it does, and the development of cell phones—and the portable, networked computers they have become—put pressure on the battery industry to come up with lighter, longer lasting, rechargeable batteries. They found the answer in lithium-based batteries, especially the lithium-ion type that is common today.

When the automakers were again needing to look at alternatives to oil, mostly for fuel economy and emission control reasons, the new lithium-ion batteries changed the equation for the effectiveness and affordability of electric and hybrid cars. It is yet to become cheap, as attested by the price of the high-end electric cars made by Tesla. Even cars marketed for the mass market like the Chevy Volt is expensive without subsidies. (The Volt is technically a plug-in hybrid, but for the majority of drivers who travel less than forty miles a day it can be all-electric.)

There is a lot of potential for advance batteries becoming the industrial driver of the future. A growing electric car market will create a demand for a lot of batteries. The increased uses of renewable energy, and the eventual retirement of coal-burning and other fuel-consuming power plants, depends on energy storage to even out the waxing and waning of energy sources that vary with the cycles of the sun and the whims of the weather. The 2009 stimulus bill put a lot of money into new battery research and manufacturing, but Asia is still ahead of the U.S. in manufacturing capacity if not in innovation. If America wants a piece of this revolution (we’re going to buy a lot of these batteries, so maybe we should reap some of the benefits of making them), we’ll need to invest in these industries (as China is) and not leave to Asian manufacturers to lengthen their lead.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Fletcher, Seth. Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cards, and the New Lithium Economy. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.