Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Powerhouse by Steve Levine

The technology that has the potential for a breakthrough that could revolutionize life in the next few decades is not one many might think of. It’s the battery. The next generation of battery could make affordable, long-range electric vehicles available to the masses. They could make variable energy sources like wind and solar more viable competitors to traditional, fuel-burning energy.

Though it is not widely publicized, major companies, start-ups and even government agencies are involved in a race to bring the next generation battery to the market. The company that creates it and the nation that can establish the manufacturing base for it will be in a position to make a lot of money. It’s a dramatic story, which Steve Levine relates in The Powerhouse.

Levine provides some background on the development of the lithium ion battery and improvements to it. His focus, however, is Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne, located near Chicago, started as a lab to research nuclear energy and weaponry. It traces its history back to the Manhattan Project and the University of Chicago lab where Enrico Fermi started a manmade, self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. At the close of the book, Argonne was taking the lead of a hub of battery technology development aimed particularly at creating the battery that will put electric cars in millions of garages.

Argonne is not the only player in the field. Levine also reports on some of the companies, large and small, and countries that are staking out their places in the field. Automakers, particularly General Motors, are particularly interested in these devices that might radically change their industry.

The chemistry of these batteries, particularly the cathodes, is discussed in the book, but not deeply. It is not a textbook on electrochemistry. It is instead a book on the business and politics of an uncertain technological development that has the potential to alter the economic and environmental condition of the world.

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

Levine, Steve. The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. New York: Viking, 2015.